Standing up for justice

Standing up for justice

What does it mean to be a man? When I was growing up, the image of a “real man” was epitomized by John Wayne. A “real man” was strong and silent and never cried. He defended women and children. He went out and worked to support his family and told “his woman” not to worry because he would take care of everything.

A few decades later, the image of a “real man” became more Alan Alda than John Wayne. A “real man” wasn’t afraid to cry. He knew how to cook (not just barbecue) and how to change a diaper. He wasn’t intimidated if his wife earned more than he did, for he knew that his worth was not measured by his paycheck. A “real man” and his wife were equal partners at home and in the wider world.

So what does it mean to be a man? Perhaps we should look to Moses in this week’s parasha, Shemot, which tells of the birth of Moses, his awareness of the suffering of his people, the revelation at the burning bush, and the beginning of his mission to Pharaoh. From this point forward, Moses becomes the central, towering figure of the Torah.

So it comes as a surprise that when we meet Moses as an adult, the first thing he does is kill someone. The Torah tells us:

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

It would appear that Moses was carried away by anger, for surely the Egyptian who was administering the beating had not committed a capital offense. In the words of Rabbi Naftali Hertz Weisel, “Did merely striking a blow warrant killing?” Moreover, Moses’ furtive behavior — he turned this way and that and saw no one about — suggests that he did not believe he had acted properly. 

Of course, the words translated as “seeing no one about” — “vayar ki ein ish” — literally mean, “he saw there was no man.” The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (19th century, Volozhin) wrote: The Torah did not say “he did not see a man” but “he saw that there was no man.” There were people, but there was no one to whom he could turn in his time of trouble. There was no rescuer, no one from whom he could seek help, for they were all haters of Israel.

Once Moses realized that the law would not protect a Hebrew slave in Egypt, he took the law into his own hands.

If we read the verse this way, we understand that Moses acted because there was no one else willing to stand up for justice, willing to intervene to prevent the abuse of a Hebrew slave — no one willing to “be a man.”

Only a few verses later, we see Moses intervene again to protect the daughters of a Midianite priest, women who were being driven away from the communal well by a group of male shepherds. Moses didn’t go looking for a fight, trying to prove his manhood, but when he saw the weak — whether one of his own people or strangers — being abused, he believed it was his duty as a man — that is, as a mensch — to try to prevent injustice.

There are many qualities that make a man — actually, a mensch of either sex. We learn from Moses that one of the most important is to be an advocate for justice, to stand up and do the right thing.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa. 

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