The stories of Moshe Rabbeinu and Esther HaMalkah are very similar. Both lived in luxurious conditions while their people were suffering. Moshe was raised in the house of King Pharaoh; Esther was the queen of King Achashveirosh. But each felt so connected to their brothers and sisters that they risked their lives to protect and save them, even though they themselves were neither suffering nor in danger.
What does this kind of heroism require, and can we aspire to reach such levels?
With Moshe we are told in the Torah that it began when he went out of the house of the king. “Vayetze el echav” – he went out to his brothers. He knew who his real family was. While raised as a prince – and as the Midrash says, given great power – he nevertheless identified with the lowly slaves who were his people. He was able to understand and empathize with their suffering. He did not keep his head buried in the sand, ignoring the suffering he had no personal need to see. He searched it out. He cared.
Sexual abuse survivors in our community have for too long felt that nobody cared, that nobody heard their silent screams for help. As children, they were scared, ashamed, terrified and helpless. And as they grew up, they continued to carry the burden of their horrible secret alone.
Today, at long last, more and more of us are telling them that we care and that they are no longer alone.
But simply caring was not enough for Moshe. When he saw a Jew being harmed, he put himself in harm’s way and risked his own life to protect him. In similar fashion, in numerous cases where the Nazis came to chadarim to take away the children, their rebbeim, who could have remained behind, chose almost certain death over abandoning their students in their final time of need.
We too must stand with our children against those who would harm them.
When he saw one Jew about to harm another Jew, what did Moshe do? Did he look away? Did he convene a bet din? Was he worried about saying something that might embarrass the abuser’s innocent family? Did he say, “I’d better keep quiet, because I will be causing a chillul Hashem if I make a scene”?
No. He said loud and clear, “Rasha, lama takeh reyecha?” – “Evil one, why do you hit your friend?” We all know this individual was referred to as evil even though he had not yet hurt his intended victim (the Midrash points out he had only lifted his hand, and for that was called a rasha). Why? Because even to threaten another Jew, to scare him and traumatize him, is an evil act, worthy of intervention.
Moshe did not ask how bad the abuse was on a scale of one to ten. If he saw a Jew abusing another Jew in a way that could cause emotional harm even before he got to the physical harm, this was evil and had to be stopped.
Now, the Torah does not say Moshe was successful in stopping the aggressive act. In fact, the abuser had the arrogance to talk back to Moshe. I suppose in our day he would threaten to have Moshe’s children kicked out of yeshiva, or to make sure they would not get shidduchim.
So why does the Torah tell us the story of Moshe sticking up for the victim, if he did not necessarily accomplish anything? What did he accomplish?
The answer is this: He showed the victim he was not alone; that he, Moshe, would stand with him and speak up for him.
Psychologists who study trauma victims – Holocaust survivors, people who’ve lived through terrorist attacks, children who’ve been sexually abused – tell us that feelings of isolation, betrayal and abandonment are at the heart of the pain of the experience.
Which is why we must, with one voice, say to the victims of abuse in our community: No More. We stand with you. We will never again abandon you, our kinderlach, to molesters and others who would harm you. We will listen. We will protect you.
And to adult survivors we say: We want to hear your stories. We will embrace you. We are so very sorry for betraying you all these years.