The question that prompts aggadah 20 is, in my opinion, rather mistranslated in our English version. In response to the verse, “He [Moses] went out to his brothers and saw their suffering” (Exodus 2:11), the rabbis ask “Mahu ‘vayar’?” --What does it mean, ‘he saw’? What a great rabbinical question—asking us what seeing really means in this context. The commentators recognize that something greater than mere sensing is happening here; Moses develops an awareness of the Israelites’ suffering, and that development is encapsulated in the word “saw.” The translation, “How did he feel as ‘he looked on’?” doesn’t really capture the issue the rabbis have with this laconic description of Moses’ big realization.
So what does it mean that Moses sees their suffering? Through three separate teachings, the rabbis build the case that seeing means identifying with the sufferer and literally taking up the other’s heaviest burden. Seeing also means understanding the specific kind(s) of pain people are in and trying to alleviate their suffering through practical solutions. These stories present Moses’ empathy and capacity to bear the burden of the other as his strongest and truest characteristics. This is Moses as both the ultimate practitioner of Mussar (Jewish ethical practice) and a great community organizer.
Truly seeing another human being, especially one who is suffering, is often a challenge. Empathizing with suffering can be frightening and threatening to our sense of security or identity. It is much easier to feel pity for sufferers because that pity distances us from their reality and the sense that their suffering is bound up in our own well-being and touches our own lives. Moses’ deep capacity to empathize with the Israelite slaves and to take on their cause as his own—or perhaps his inability not to do so—qualifies him to lead b’nei Yisrael out of slavery.
I love the sense of human-divine partnership in the idea that Moses actually ordained Shabbat as a day of rest for the Israelites while they were still enslaved. It made me wonder, however, about how the Israelites would have reacted to the institution of Shabbat being transferred from the context of slavery to the context of freedom. I can imagine them thinking, “What does it mean that we still need to have Shabbat when we are free human beings who choose how to spend our time?” How is it different to celebrate Shabbat as a slave or as a free person? Perhaps the man who goes out to gather sticks on Shabbat in the wilderness (Bamidbar 15:32) just misunderstands shabbat’s purpose in light of his newfound freedom.
One note: If you have never read Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, I highly recommend it as an extended midrash on Moses’ life with an especially fascinating treatment of Jethro and Moses’ time in Midian.
Chag sameach, everybody! May our week residing in our fragile sukkot help us "see" the suffering of those who lack shelter.