Parshas Shemos: “And A Man Went”

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemos, the Torah narrates the Egyptian enslavement which embittered the lives of the Israelites, broke their bodies and spirit (Rashi to Ex.1:13 and Ex.6:9, respectively) and ultimately led to a period of infanticide when all baby boys born were thrown into the river (1:22). 

Into the context of this harrowing and terrible time, the Torah informs us of the story of a man and a woman (who remain unnamed) and the birth of their son (who also initially remains unnamed).  וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ, מִבֵּית לֵוִי; וַיִּקַּח, אֶתבַּתלֵוִיAnd a man from the house of Levi went, and he took (i.e.: married) a daughter of Levi, and she conceived and bore a son (Shemos 2:1-2).  When the child was born, the house was filled with light (Rashi to v.2) – a foreshadowing of the light that would beam from Moshe’s face when he came down from Mt. Sinai upon receiving the Torah (34:29-35).

Moshe’s entire story, his life and destiny, are announced with the words: וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ, and a man went (2:1).  Not to be ignored or overlooked is the similarity to the launching of the life and career of Avraham Avinu, the father and founder of the Umah Yisraelis. וַיֹּאמֶר האֶלאַבְרָם, לֶךְלְךָאֶלהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ And Hashem said to Avram: Journey to yourself (for yourself)…. to the land that I will show you (Bereishis 12:1). 

What does the Torah teach us by introducing the lives of these two giants – Avraham and Moshe  – with the verb ‘lech’, ‘to go, to journey forth, to walk, to move forward’?  In his Unlocking the Torah Text Bereishit, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes, “Lech licha literally means ‘go for yourself‘ and is understood by Rashi to imply ‘for your benefit and your good.’  Vayeleich, on the other hand, (the word used to introduce us to the Moshe narrative), is open ended, without the reflexive reference of ‘for yourself.’  

“Avraham’s life unfolded before the Jewish nation was born and was defined by the personal journeys of the patriarchs, matriarchs and their families.  It was a time of the ‘yachid’, the individual.  Hence, Avraham’s life is defined by the individual commandment lech licha, a charge towards personal growth and accomplishment.  

“With Moshe’s birth and the dawn of the national era, however, success becomes measured not only in personal terms but in communal terms as well.  Moshe leads others; that is his primary role.  Moshe will ‘go’ and others will follow.  While ‘lech licha’ (as told to Avraham) entails response to a commandment from G-d, ‘vayeilech’ (and Amram went and took Yocheved and Moshe was born) reflects self-motivation and initiative on the part of man…

“G-d’s willingness to overtly direct the course of Jewish history apparently diminishes as the nation matures.  Lech Licha is transformed into vayeilech.  In incremental fashion our own initiative will determine the course of our lives and our nation’s history.

“How appropriate, therefore, that the verb la’lachet, which is used in the text to capture the lives of both Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu and to make the transition from one to the other, eventually becomes the root of the word halacha, the term that identifies and categorizes Jewish law.  Across the ages, the descendants of Avraham and the spiritual descendants of Moshe will not wait for a sign from above to indicate G-d’s design.  They will, instead, take the initiative to determine that design – that of Jewish law – through the study, interpretation, application, and observance of G-d’s law, a law that continues to develop through a partnership between G-d and man.  Involvement in the halacha will indicate how ‘to go’, the path we must walk and the ways we must follow, as its adherents are guided along the path of continued spiritual growth and development” (Unlocking the Torah Text Bereishit, p.14-16).

While Avraham lived as an individual and he was commanded to ‘go for yourself’, Moshe launched a new era.  He was, literally, living for the klal, the community and the nation.  His journey was one of initiative to help others, teach others, pray for others, and do for others.  This is the mission of every great leader, dedicated and committed to tzarchei tzibbur and the betterment of the klal.  It is no longer sufficient, once the national era was launched, to live solely for oneself.  A Jew must always ‘go’ to help others as well.  

How fascinating, inspiring and poignant that at the very end of Moshe’s life we are told: וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶתהַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶלכָּליִשְׂרָאֵל, and Moshe went and he spoke all these words unto all of Israel, and he said to them: בֶּןמֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹםלֹאאוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא, I am one hundred and twenty years old today, I am no longer able to go out and come in (Devarim 31:1-2).  

His mission complete, Moshe takes leave of the nation with the word that launched his life ‘וַיֵּלֶךְ’.  As if to teach us that his entire 120 years was one long continuum of going, working and doing for the nation. And when he could no longer do so, then his life was truly over.  

At the end of his life, Rav Pam zt’l (Rav Avrohom Yaakov HaKohen Pam, 1913-2001, Rosh Yeshiva Yeshivas Torah Vodaas), told his grandson that while he felt bereft of pleasure from life due to his inability to study Torah, it was worth living if he could still help another Jew in some way.  That very day, he was able to procure funds for someone in dire need, and was able to present the man with a check for $1,800.  “When the man arrived some ten minutes later, Rav Pam handed him the check and said ‘Here is three months’ rent.’  He then kissed the man’s hand and blessed him.  The man was overjoyed.  When the man left, Rav Pam was exceedingly happy and he said, ‘Today was an accomplished day!  Now I can go lie down’” (Rav Pam, Artscroll, p.478). 

While we all must strive to emulate Avraham’s personal journey and better ourselves each and every day – lech licha, go to – and for – yourself – we can never forget that Moshe’s life launched a nation.  A nation that we are all part of, and where all of Israel are guarantors for one another.  And so, Moshe’s life begins with וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ, מִבֵּית לֵוִי, and ends with וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה.  For his entire life was one of going, and doing, for others.

,בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום


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