Faced with the decision whether to save a few or risk losing everyone, Moses underlined the importance of community and the concept of leaving no one behind.
This week’s Torah portion begins after seven plagues have already taken their toll on the Egyptian people and land. Pharaoh’s advisers go to him and tell him he is making a grave mistake: “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?” Finally Pharaoh relents, and tells Moses and Aaron that they can take their men and go observe the three-day festival they have been requesting.
The story of the Exodus might have ended at that moment. But Moses rejects the offer, replying: “We will all go, young and old: We will go with our sons and our daughters, our flocks and herds.” Moses insists the whole community must leave Egypt together. As the saying goes: “No one is free, until everyone is free.”
Moses’ words seem obvious. Of course, he and the other men wouldn’t want to leave without their spouses, parents, siblings and children. What kind of liberation would that be? For most of us, our relationships with our loved ones are the most meaningful part of our lives and we could not imagine leaving them.
However, it may be hard to understand how desperate the situation was for the people of Israel. They had been enslaved for hundreds of years. Men, women and children died from the harsh work conditions or at the hands of their taskmasters. As if that weren’t enough, Pharaoh had ordered all the male infants to be murdered at birth. Once Moses returned to lead the people out of Egypt, Pharaoh had punished them and increased their work load. No one knew if they would survive, let alone go free.
It is in this context that Moses refused Pharaoh’s initial offer. He might have thought it better to save a few than lose everyone. But Moses was not bargaining; his concept of community was not political or expedient. Rather he was holding up a vision of sacred community in which each person’s unique presence was essential — holiness could not exist without the whole people.
Slavery is predicated on the idea that human life has no worth. In contrast, Judaism teaches that “to save one life is to save the world.” By insisting on bringing every last Israelite with him, Moses challenged the foundation of the oppressive society in which they lived and offered Israel a different vision of community — one built upon the inherent value of each person. He had faith that they didn’t need to leave anyone behind in order to achieve their freedom.
Moses’ focus on the importance of each life also teaches that it is not just what we contribute, but who we are that truly matters. All people, no matter their physical or cognitive limitations, have a right to live with purpose, dignity and love. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being — God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
May Moses’ example inspire us to find the blessing in each person we encounter. May we have the wisdom to create sacred communities in which all life is valued. And may we find the courage and faith to hold on to our vision of a better future even when it looks impossible.
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is director of Jewish Community Services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.