This week we begin reading the second book of the Torah, Exodus. The first book, Genesis, covered about 2000 years from the creation of the world until Jacob’s family went to live in Egypt to survive during the famine. They ended up settling there until a paranoia arose in the mind of Pharaoh and other Egyptians. They thought the Jews were becoming too numerous and therefore decided to enslave them. Moses, who had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and had grown up in the royal household, ultimately went out and saw the burdens of his Jewish brothers and sisters and chose to stand up for them. When he killed an Egyptian taskmaster, who had raped someone’s wife, it became known and he had to flee. He made it to Midian and married Tzipora, the daughter of Jethro. After the Burning Bush incident, Moses decided to return to Egypt so that he could rescue and liberate the Jews.
And Moses went and he returned to Yeter (Jethro), his father in law, and said to him, ‘Let me go, please, and I will return to my brethren who are in Egypt. (4:18)
Moses was a grown man, married with children; why did he need his father in law’s permission before embarking on a task of such great magnitude? Did Rev. Martin Luther King request permission from his father in law before commencing his civil rights work? Did Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, or any other person need permission before executing a noble mission that aimed to change and better the lives of millions of people? Rashi answers that Moses needed permission from his father in law because he (Moses) had previously sworn to him that he would not leave Midian without permission.
Rashi’s explanation is difficult to understand in light of the fact the Almighty Himself had commanded Moses to return to Egypt. When the Creator of the universe tells you to do something, do you need someone else’s permission? The Midrash says that Moses’ behavior is a demonstration of the trait of hakarat hatov; when someone does something favorable for you, it is an obligation to recognize that favor not only with thought and words, but also with action. Yitro, his father in law, had taken him into his home and fed him at a time when Moses was a fugitive; Moses never forgot it. He was so grateful that he refused to go, even though G-d had commanded him to do so, until he asked permission, which was part of the oath he had made with his father in law. However, this too is difficult to understand.
As commendable as being grateful is, it still seems odd to delay doing something you were told to do by the All-Powerful G-d of the universe. If an army Private on kitchen duty was told by a General to come with him on an important mission, would the Private first need to go to his Sergeant to get permission? Even though a soldier takes an oath to abide by the rules of the army, and one is not allowed to disobey the directive of a commanding officer, when a significantly higher-ranking officer gives a different command it is understood that the higher-ranking officer’s command must be done. This point is obvious and accepted in most areas of life. Whether it is the head football coach changing a play or a CEO overruling a district manager, all understand that no permission is needed to follow the command of someone of higher rank. Why, then, did G-d not chastise Moses for delaying his mission of going to Egypt?
Moses understood that G-d would never ask him or anyone else to break their word. If an oath was made, it had to be kept-even though it meant delaying a direct command from the Almighty. We are meant to live with derech eretz, -common decency; G-d would never command someone to do something that would cause him or her to discard a promise. The Midrash is the source of an ancient Jewish exhortation Derech Eretz Kadma l’Torah, which means that respectful and dignified conduct is a prerequisite for Torah observance. There is a mitzvah to eat kosher food but if one eats it like a slob, (s)he has missed a basic point of life. Rav Elihayu Dessler (1892-1953) expressed this idea by saying, the root of this obligation lies in our obligation toward a human being by virtue of one’s being a human being because one who does not appreciate the obligation to respect others lacks the attributes required for success in Torah. Accordingly, honoring one’s word or granting dignity to every human being is not just a suggestion, it is a prerequisite for being Jewish-it even precedes Torah observance.
One Rabbi compared it to building a brick wall. Bricks alone are not sufficient to build a wall, one also needs cement. One can pile 100 bricks on top of one another but they will easily fall without something to hold them together. Similarly, mitzvos, like bricks, are the (spiritual) building blocks of Jewish life but the building cannot endure without Derech Eretz, (i.e. “cement”) If a person observes the Torah’s laws but is crude or does not adhere to the basic laws of human conduct, (s)he is missing the point and is not living the prescribed Torah life.
As much as we need to strive for excellence in our observance of the mitzvos of the Torah, we must be equally concerned that we refine our character and conduct ourselves in a polite, respectful, and good-natured manner
G-d did not need to give a commandment “thou shall not ignore a promise to someone who did you a favor” because it is a basic expectation of every human being. Moses understood this and that is why he needed to ask his father in law, the man who took him in when no one else did, permission before embarking on a journey that would literally change the course of human history.
(Sources: Sichos Mussar 5732:32; Vayikra Rabba:9; Michtav Me’Eliyahu v. 4, pp. 246, 248)