Moses the Radical

A D’var Torah for Parshat Shemot by Rabbi Andy Kahn

In his work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, a renowned 20th century Brazilian philosopher and teacher credited as one of the founders of critical pedagogy, defines the radical as one who is ”committed to human liberation, [who] does not become the prisoner of a circle of certainty within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled.”1

The Moses of our Torah portion this week finds himself becoming this radical. We meet him entering into a world in which Pharaoh has decided to hatch a cunning plot to deal shrewdly with the Israelites, so as to hide from them the full extent of their oppression. Pharaoh suggests, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:9-10) The medieval commentator Ramban relates this point to a moment much later in our story, after Moses’ return from exile, when he writes that “[the oppression of the Israelites] was all arranged to be done subtly, so that they would not realize that the violence was being directed against them as a people. This explains why the Israelite foremen told Moses, ‘May God look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers — putting a sword in their hands to slay us.’” (Ex. 5:21)

Freire identifies the tendency amongst oppressors to project their own desire for violence upon the targets of their violence, creating a system of belief in which the oppression itself is justified by an expectation that the oppressed themselves wish to enact the very violence that is being enacted upon them. (Freire, 55-56) Moses, unlike the other Israelites, was raised in Pharaoh’s household. Having been spared the experience of his Israelite brethren as oppressed, he was able to escape the prison of certainty that accepted Pharaoh’s arrangement of oppressive Egyptian and oppressed Israelite as natural. The Israelite foremen who had condemned Moses identify more readily with the oppressor than the one who would confront and dismantle the structure, a tendency described in detail by Freire. (Freire, 45) Their experience in life as oppressed subjects, similar to that of the other enslaved Israelites, created a situation in which they had internalized the oppressive structure as normative, which we see arise again and again from the Israelites through the trials and tribulations of the Exodus. But not for Moses.

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After being blamed for Pharaoh’s horrible treatment, Moses turns to God and asks, “Why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”

And God responds to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.” (Exodus 5:22-6:1)

God’s response echoes Freire’s estimation. Only by bringing the Pharaoh lower in the eyes of the Israelites would they be able to experience the possibility of liberation; only then would they see that the reality they existed in was one that could, and should, be rectified. Moses’ role here is that of the radical liberator, charged by God to lift the Israelites up and out of their context of oppression. 

Rabbi Andy Kahn

We Jews today have inherited the Torah of Moses, teaching us, too, to remember the insidiousness of oppression that can thrive both externally and internally. Our own histories and present experiences of oppression and liberation provide us the vantage point from which to see this dynamic unveiled before us. Our responsibility, like that of Moses, is to unveil the realities of oppression we exist within and that exist within us — from the economic and racial injustices in our home of America, to the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. In doing so we carry the charge of our ancestors to remember that a greater might shall drive oppression from our lands.

Rabbi Andy Kahn is an associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. He is a 2018 ordinee of HUC-JIR, and has worked previously at CCAR Press and East End Temple. You can follow him on Twitter @rabbiandykahn.

1. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p. 39). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.