|Imagine a U.S. army General telling a soldier on kitchen duty he would like 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 to the first Parsha of Exodus.
Moses had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and grown up in the royal household. As he grew older, he saw the burdens of his Jewish brothers and sisters and 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, he fled to Midian and eventually married Tzipora, the daughter of Jethro. At the Burning Bush, G-d told Moses to go back to Egypt and liberate the Jews but before doing so, Moses asked his father-in-law for permission to leave.
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 aimed at bettering 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? Moses’ behavior demonstrates 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 command. He couldn’t think about leaving the man who had done so much for him without first consulting him. 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 extends to even inanimate objects. Why did Aaron, not Moses, carry out the plague of turning the Nile’s water into blood? When Moses was a baby, his mother put him in a basket and floated it down the Nile. He was eventually rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter but being as water (of the Nile) saved him, it wasn’t right for him to ‘strike’ it by turning it into blood, and that’s why Aaron, not Moses, carried out the plague of turning the water into blood.
Let’s return to our question: G-d told Moses to leave; shouldn’t all protocol fall away when the Almighty asks you to do something? Granted, it’s commendable to keep your promise but it still seems odd to delay a Divine directive—especially something involving rescuing people from persecution.
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 given. 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 the Almighty. G-d would never expect someone to break a commitment or let down people who depend on him.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. The good news is that we can start to be cognizant of our commitments and take them, and ourselves, seriously by owning up to them when we don’t keep them. Showing up 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.Good Shabbos (Source: Sichos Mussar 5732:32)