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Parashat Shemot

I and Thou

In 1923 Martin Buber wrote his book I and Thou in which he developed his Dialogic Philosophy. Buber maintains that in the system of relationships between human beings, there are two completely different views regarding our attitude towards our fellow man. We can see him as an object without a soul (like an orange that can be squeezed, for example) or we can see him as "Thou" (as a subject).

Without doubt it is easier to regard the other as object. The world of objects does not demand love, compassion, devotion or commitment. But the source of morality, according to Buber, is in the ability to realize this dialogue, to see the other as "Thou".

This is not only philosophy. Buber's Dialogic Philosophy sheds light on our relationships and makes us consider our attitudes to our children, our parents and our spouses.

The Torah portion Shmot tells of Moses' entrance to the Biblical stage and opens a new page in the history of the people of Israel in general and in the life of Moses in particular. The spoilt boy Moses, who grew up in Pharoah's palace, starts moving towards the great enterprise of his life: leading the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to redemption.

We know in retrospect that Moses had several essential leadership qualities. But the question is what G-d saw in Moses before choosing him. Our Sages say that G-d examined Moses through the flocks. When Moses was Jethro's shepherd in the desert, a kid ran away and he ran after it till it reached a pool of water and wanted to drink. "I didn't know that you ran because you were thirsty…you are tired", said Moses and carried the kid on his shoulders. G-d said, "You have compassion in leading your flock; thus will you lead the flock of Israel." (Shemot Rabbah, 2,2)

Devotion, compassion and love are required qualities for every leader. But Moses had an additional advantage. The Torah portion tells us of three events that serve as background to the choice of Moses as leader.

The first encounter was with the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. "And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren and looked on their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brethren. He looked this way and that and saw there was no one; he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." (Exodus 3, 11-12)

That event, which changed his life completely, is a prelude to the second story. "And when he went out the second day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, and said to the one who was in the wrong, 'Why do you strike your fellow man?' The Hebrew said, 'Who made you a prince and judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?' Moses feared and said, 'This thing is known.'" (Exodus 2, 13-14)

Two verses after that, we have the third story. "Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father's flocks. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them and watered their flocks." (Exodus 2, 16-17)

We have three different stories, but in substance they are identical. The central motif is caring about the other person, no matter who he is. In the first story he is a Jew; in the third he is a Midianite.

It does not matter who your fellow man is. The main point is to see him as "Thou", as Buber defines him. Only someone capable of seeing the other person in this way is capable of leading an oppressed mass of people, that mass without shape or distinctiveness, from slavery to redemption.

Weekly Torah Portion

Old Hebrew Prayer Book
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