The right to welcome in the new must be earned by the courage to challenge the old.
© Rabbi David Lapin, 2015
What the Midrash Means Series - 1:13
Notice a glaring omission in the Parsha:
In setting up Moshe’s confrontation with the king of Egypt, Hashem clearly includes the zekeinim (elders) in the Jewish delegation (Shemot 3:18). However when the meeting actually happens, the zekeinim are conspicuously excluded from mention. There must be a relevant lesson in this, what is it? Our Midrash explores.
"ואחר באו משה ואהרן" היכן הלכו הזקנים שלא חשב אותם עמהם שכבר אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא (שם ג, יח) ובאת אתה וזקני ישראל אמרו רבותינו הלכו עמהן הזקנים והיו מגנבין את עצמן ונשמטין אחד אחד שנים שנים והלכו להן כיון שהגיעו לפלטרין של פרעה לא נמצא אחד שכן כתיב ואחר באו משה ואהרן והיכן הזקנים אלא שהלכו להן אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא כך עשיתם חייכם שאני פורע לכם אימתי בשעה שעלה משה ואהרן עם הזקנים להר סיני לקבל התורה החזירן הקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר (שם כד, יד) ואל הזקנים אמר שבו לנו בזה.
- שמות רבה פ״ה ס׳ י״ד
“And then Moshe and Ahron came…” Where did the zekeinim (elders) go that they are not counted (among those who came to Pharoh), for Hashem had specifically instructed Moshe “you approach (Pharoh) together with the zekeinim of Israel?” Our rabbis explained that the zekeinim initially accompanied Moshe and Ahron but they then stole away and one by one, and then two by two, they silently slipped out and went away. When Moshe and Ahron got to Pharoh’s palace not a single one of them was to be found. Hashem told them: Since you behaved in this way I swear to pay you back. When? When Moshe Moshe and Ahron ascended Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, Hashem turned the zekeinim back, as it says (Shemot 24:14) “And to the zekeinim He said, ‘Stop and rest here.’”
He’arrot - Observations
The idea of middah kenegged middah (measure for measure) is central to this Midrash. The zekeinim are punished for dropping out of the Jewish delegation to Pharoh by their later exclusion from the delegation that receives the Torah. Middah kenegged middah is not a childish form of Divine “tit-for-tat.” Rather it is a form of precision-communication between G-d and humankind. Middah kenegged middah is designed to make the message communicated in the punishment a person receives for something wrong he or she did, abundantly clear to the student of life. What exactly is G-d communicating to them and to us?
Two events and two delegations are in Midrashic focus here: The delegation that went to confront Pharoh and the delegation that went to receive the Torah. The first event was intended to disrupt the status quo by challenging the most foundational orthodoxies of the time; namely that Pharo’s authority was supreme and that the Jews would be slaves forever. The second event ushered in an unprecedented future for the world; a future that could not have been imagined even minutes before it occurred.
Challenging the status quo and the powerful authorities invested in perpetuating it, requires courage. The road to change is strewn with the corpses of many who failed in their courageous endeavors. Still, tenacious persistence has ultimately overthrown many powers and assumptions that were previously thought to be inviolable. Tzars, emperors and brutal governments have been overthrown where once they were thought to be permanent. Beliefs that were at one time unquestioned, are today laughable. Moshe, Ahron and the zekeinim demonstrated this courage as they strode toward the royal palace of Pharoh.
Courage means the willingness to risk and the readiness to be vulnerable. There is no courage without vulnerability. Risking death is an act of courage and so is risking rejection. The delegation to Pharoh risked both. For some in the delegation, the zekeinim, the risk was too great, their courage too small. One by one they opted out.
Welcoming the new does not require courage nor does it entail vulnerability. Heroes are those who risk loss not those who embrace reward. The Torah teaches us the correlation between the two. Only those who believed so passionately in the need for change that they willingly risked all they had in the challenge of old paradigms, are entitled to lead the change and represent that which is new. Cowards are the people who hide when the status quo needs to be challenged and come out in triumphant celebration when the old is replaced by a new, and more noble future. G-d teaches us that the right to welcome in the new must be earned by the courage to challenge the old.
The assumptions of aggressive secular liberalism and academic atheism are among the prevailing orthodoxies that need to be challenged today. These forces systematically try to remove the Divine from modernity and the Jewish People from relevance. They pollute the sanctity of thought and the purity of intellectual pursuit. Proponents of secular liberalism and academic atheism are often more passionate about Godlessness than they are about the disciplines they purport to represent. They proliferate on college campuses and in social and traditional media. They insinuate themselves into entertainment and education. These forces are as alive within the Jewish community as they are anywhere else.
Some people fear tarnishing their reputations or diminishing their social popularity by challenging these Pharos of today. Sometimes they encourage others to lead the charge, but when the going gets hard, one by one they slip away from the movement and the few are left alone to confront the many. If we truly believe in a future where Truth will trump falsehood and sanctity will overshadow Godless secularity, then now is the time to stand up and articulate a loud, intelligent and compelling voice against those the exclusion of God from thought and Jews from national existence. Only by exposing our vulnerability do we acquire the courage that earns us the right to be leaders of societal change.