Imagine a soldier in the U.S. army on kitchen duty who was told by a General to speak with him after dinner about an important covert mission. Would this soldier need permission from his Sergeant? 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 a command of someone of higher rank. This idea transports us in the first Parsha of Exodus.
Moses had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and had grown up in the royal household. As he grew older and saw the burdens of his Jewish brothers and sisters, he chose to plead their cause and even fight for them, if necessary. One incident changed his life forever—he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who had raped a Jewish woman. The matter became known and he had to flee, ending up in Midian and marrying Tzipora, the daughter of Jethro. At the Burning Bush, G-d told Moses to go back to Egypt and liberate the Jews. Before leaving, Moses asked his father-in-law for permission.
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 up, married with children; why did he need his father-in-law’s permission to leave? Did 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 addresses this question and 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.
But this explanation is difficult to understand when we consider that the Almighty Himself commanded Moses to return to Egypt. When the Creator of the universe directs you to do something, do you need someone else’s permission? Does the army private need the sergeant’s permission to carry out a General’s directive? Moses’ behavior is a demonstration of two important traits.
The first is Derech eretz, proper, decent conduct. If he promised he wouldn’t leave, he couldn’t do so—even for a great cause—without first getting his father-in-law’s consent. In addition, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken him into his home and fed him at a time when Moses was a fugitive and Moses never forgot it. He was so grateful that he refused to go until he asked permission, even though the Almighty Himself had given him a direct commanded. He couldn’t think about leaving the man who had done so much for him without consulting him first. Hakarat hatov is a Jewish concept mandating us to express thanks when someone does something for us. It doesn’t matter what the other person’s intentions are; I need to express gratitude because I have been the recipient of kindness. The Midrash says this concept even extends to inanimate objects, which is seen when Aaron, not Moses, carried out the plague of blood. When Moses was a baby his mother put him into a basket and floated it down the Nile. He was eventually rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. Being as water (the Nile) saved him, it wasn’t right for him to ‘strike’ it by truing it into blood; that’s why Aaron, not Moses, carried out the plague of Blood.
But we once again return to our challenge. This is G-d speaking; don’t all rules and protocol fall away when your Creator asks you to do something? As commendable as it is to keep your promise, it still seems odd to delay doing something G-d told you to do—especially something involving saving people from persecution. Is there a bigger need than this?
Moses understood that G-d would never ask him or anyone else to break their word or be ungrateful. If a promise was made, it had to be kept—even though it meant delaying a direct command. Moses’ job was to liberate the people and bring them to Mount Sinai, where a great moral code called the Torah would be revealed. How could Moses succeed in his role if it began with ingratitude and not keeping his word? This explains why Moses delayed (even) a direct command from G-d, Who would never expect someone to let down the people who depend on them and the commitments they make.
We all at various times justify not showing up when we said we would or not showing up at all because we (think we) have a good excuse. Sometimes we don’t do something and then blame the circumstances but in our heart of hearts we know that had we left earlier, planned better or were more committed, we would have done what we had committed to do. The good news is that we can be cognizant of it and begin to take our commitments, and ourselves, seriously by owning up to it when we don’t. Showing up consistently 10 minutes late with an excuse doesn’t equal coming on time. We make choices constantly, let’s make ones that are true to ourselves and the people who count on us.
(based on Sichos Mussar 5732:32)