Torah From A Mussar Perspective Shmot 5782

This commentary originally appeared as part of Torah From A Mussar Perspective from the Mussar Institute.


The Mussar tradition understands that we aren’t meant to simply read the parasha of the week but are instead invited to live deeply with and into it. This accords with the idea that the Torah speaks to every generation. Put another way, in Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag reminds us to “turn it, turn it, for everything is in it.”[1]


Shemot, the opening parasha of Sefer Shemot—”the book of names”—tells the story of the enslavement of the Children of Israel. A new Pharaoh ascends to the throne who knew not Yosef, the former Viceroy of Egypt and beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. The Children of Israel are subject to brutal, back-breaking forced labor. Ours is the beginning of a narrative of oppression and liberation that continues to reverberate throughout the world. It forms the core of our national story—we are reminded to recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day in our prayers and particularly recount the story in all its detail at the Passover seder. During the hundreds of years of degradation and horror, there are some extraordinary incidents of moral courage or as we would refer to it in our Mussar work, ometz lev—strength of heart.


In her beautiful commentary to Parshat Shemot in The Mussar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Amy Eilberg[2] highlights in particular the moral courage of the Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh issues a decree instructing all Israelite baby boys to be killed straight away, while baby girls are permitted to live. Shifra and Puah do not obey the decree and claim that the Jewish women who are laboring and giving birth do so quickly that the baby is already delivered by the time they arrive, making it impossible to act in accordance with Pharaoh’s evil proclamation. This is also why Yocheved, in another act of tremendous moral courage and with a level of Bitachon and Emunah that is unfathomable, places Moshe in a basket and sets it on the Nile River. Blessedly, Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, finds the basket and adopts Moshe as her own. Yet a third act of ometz lev by an incredibly righteous woman. Batya’s actions deserve even greater esteem given her social status and the incredible risk she no doubt took.


It is safe to say that no matter where you are in the world, these past few years have been immensely trying. The pandemic, political unrest, personal and familial hardship, professional upheaval, we’re all holding a lot. At times like this, I find it is easy to go in one of two directions. We can lean towards righteous anger and indignation, or we can disconnect and find ourselves in a comfortable complacency of apathy and lack of care.


Middah comes from the Hebrew for “measure,” a poignant reminder to us that middot are neither entirely bad nor entirely good. Rather, each middah has a spectrum. We can strengthen our hearts towards hardening them, as Pharaoh does many times throughout our sefer or we can strengthen our hearts towards “spiritual audacity,” in the words of the late Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. This latter approach is a supreme Jewish value and one that the Mussar tradition has long advocated.


At times, it can feel like the brokenness in the world is so tremendous that we simply don’t know how or where to begin. Worse still, we might feel so trapped in narratives we tell ourselves—that we’re not good enough, not deserving enough, not experienced enough to act. Perhaps we find ourselves entering a mindset of scarcity. If I give an inch, you’ll take a mile. Conversely, we might find ourselves leaning towards moral courage but find that we are so frustrated and filled with shame at the state of the world and the ways we may be participating in that that we feel emotionally dysregulated. Brene Brown, the noted sociologist and shame researcher speaks often about the difference between shame and guilt. When we feel guilt, we are aware that we have acted badly. Shame, by contrast, is an emotion that hits us at our very core and tells us, falsely of course, that we are inherently bad and undeserving of love and compassion.


I imagine that Shifra, Puah and Batya were deeply aware of the ways in which slavery morally stained their society. They could not just sit by. They had to risk it all to do what they could to effect change. The Torah memorializes their bravery and acts of justice for eternity to remind us that we have the power, each and every one of us, to act righteously and from our deeply rooted convictions. We’re not Shifra, Puah or Batya. Despite this, we all find ourselves in situations, large and small, when strengthening our hearts towards acting morally courageous is available to us. May our parasha inspire us to act with deep moral courage when we are called upon to do so.

[1] Avot 5:22

[2] Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  She serves as a spiritual director, peace and justice educator, and teacher of Mussar. Her current communal work includes leadership positions with Congregation Etz Chayim Anti-Racism Impact Team, Islamic Networks Group and Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom.



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