Thursday, December 23, 2010

Looking Like An Egyptian

Parshat Sh'mot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

From his first introduction to us, most of the Torah depicts Moshe as the quintessential leader par excellence. The ultimate Jewish figure, he continues to hold that enigmatic quality that Jewish mothers dream about for their children — “Maybe one day you can be as great as Moses.”

And yet, there is one description of him that is so out of character, we wonder how it came to pass that he would be called such. After Moshe saves the daughters of Yitro from the shepherds who were mistreating them, they tell their father that an “Ish Mitzri,” an Egyptian man, saved them from the shepherds (2:19).

Oddly enough, only two other people in the Torah are described as “Ish Mitzri.” The first is Potiphar, Yosef’s first Egyptian master (Bereshit 39:1). The second is the man Moshe killed earlier in our chapter, for striking the Hebrew slave (2:11). The term appears in Vayikra 24:10 as well, but most people identify the Ish Mitzri there (the father of the blasphemer) as the same Egyptian man that Moshe killed in 2:11.

Certainly Moshe has little, if anything, in common with Potiphar and the violent Egyptian. How could the Torah give him the same title as these other Egyptian men?

I do not yet have an explanation as to whether a comparison to Potiphar is valid, unless in his case, as in Moshe’s, it refers to a member of Egyptian aristocracy.

Regardless, Rabbenu Bachaye records a beautiful interpretation that appears in a number of places in the Midrash. Yitro’s daughters were thanking their lucky stars that Moshe was present at the well. It was his flight on account of killing the “Ish Mitzri” of 2:11 that brought him to Midian. In this light, they were saying that the circumstances that brought Moshe to be at that well to save them was on account of an Ish Mitzri whom Moshe killed. In this interpretation, the last three times the term appears in the Torah all refer to the same Ish Mitzri - while the term is not being used to describe Moshe.

Of course, the simple explanation is that Moshe, who grew up in the palace of the king, was dressed like and spoke the language of an Egyptian.

I think that his being an Ish Mitzri here is just another challenge for him to overcome in the pursuit of his identity. Different Midrashim paint his time period in Midian to between 40 and 60 years, meaning he’ll have much time to contemplate who he is and what his mission in life will ultimately be.

The story is told that when the Russian Tzar decreed the Jews could no longer wear “Jewish” clothing, many rabbis felt the need to oppose the legislation and to wear Jewish clothing at all costs. The Kotzker rebbe, on the other hand, was against such an approach, as he felt the only real “Jewish clothing” are the tallis and techelet, both of which can always be worn, either when praying, or underneath one’s outer garments.

Moshe was dressed like a Mitzri, even though he was a Hebrew, says the Midrash. He demonstrated his concern for the other in every encounter he had in the Torah's first depictions of his behavior.

For us, the question becomes one of how much our dressing like the “mitzri” affects who we are as Hebrews. I recall fondly one of the musser talks I heard from one of my high school rebbeim about how “the clothes make the man.” I wonder if I remain a more conservative dresser, to this day, on account of that 20 minute monologue.

I still marvel over how many of us fall into the trap of “needing” to be up-to-date in terms of styles and accessories. While the Kotzker rebbe was right that “Jewish clothing” are a tallis and techeilet, there is also a “Jewish dress code” that the Kotzker rebbe felt no need to refer to because he lived in a time when everyone dressed more conservatively.

The Jewish dress code of modesty is not just one of how much skin or form is exposed to onlookers. That element, one would hope, is more obvious. Modesty is also about how much attention we draw to ourselves on account of what we are wearing. There is nothing wrong with receiving a compliment from those we know, but if even those we don’t know are turning heads and gaping at our chosen form of attire, it is time to reconsider our priorities and whether we are looking too much like a “mitzri.”

Whether Yitro’s daughters referred to the Egyptian Moshe killed or thought he himself was an Egyptian, it did not take long for Moshe to set the record straight and eventually become Moshe Rabbenu. We must take the bull by the horns, swallow our need to be a walking showcase for the latest design and designers and focus on promoting the Jewish dress code of modesty and furthering our own spiritual pursuits.

It’s not just about what part of us people see. It is more about how people see us. And unlike Moshe who soon joined the family who may have viewed him otherwise, we don’t always get to set the record straight.

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