This week’s sedra describes the world’s first recorded population explosion. Jacob’s family descend to Egypt numbering around 70 and, within a short time, we are told: “The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with them” (Shemot 1:7). It is at this point our ancestors make the transition from being a family to a nation.
Pharaoh becomes fearful of the Israelites’ growing power and proposes a “final solution” to ensure they can never take over his country. Israelite boys are massacred at birth, family life is disrupted and slave labour becomes prevalent.
But through a twist of fate, one man is born into freedom. Moses is brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, living a life of luxury in splendid isolation from the tyranny that exists outside.
Upon reaching adulthood, Moses observes people’s burdens and takes their pain to heart. Rather than being a disinterested outsider, he immediately identifies with their pain.
The sages of the Midrash explain Moses started to work side by side with his new-found brothers. Some commentaries explain he even had the audacity to petition Pharaoh for better work conditions for his fellow Jews. Moses demonstrates the qualities required of a leader – care and empathy.
This gave strength and encouragement to the enslaved Jews and inspired him to make a difference to their lives, risking his own security and comfort. The seeds of Moses’ leadership are sown in the desert plains of Egypt and are a lesson for us all.
Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is educational director of Jewish Futures Trust