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Parashat Shemot 5782

December 24, 2021

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Leaving the Palace
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

This story sounds familiar, I thought.

Sitting in a college religion course, my professor began to describe the early life of a most significant religious leader in world history, someone who was effectively the founder of one of the world’s major religions.

The story began with this future religious leader growing up in a palace and living a life of spectacular material comforts. As a member of the king’s family, he has plenty of whatever he wants, and he is unaware of any suffering or poverty that exists outside the palace’s walls. In fact, the king does his best to insulate him from witnessing any pain, injustice or suffering.

One day, this future religious leader ventures out of the palace walls, and what he sees there challenges him deeply and changes him forever. He sees people suffering, recognizes them as his brethren, and realizes that he can no longer return to the palace. He renounces his role as a member of the ruling family and soon begins his role as a spiritual leader and liberator, with a passion for bringing freedom to the oppressed.

My professor was describing the early life of Gautama Buddha, as described in traditional Buddhist texts. Many, however, have noted the remarkable similarities between his story and the story of the early life of Moses, as described in Exodus Chapter 2.

The stories are full of differences as well as similarities. For example, Buddha was the son of a king, whereas Moses was an Israelite who was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. But an overwhelming similarity is that both of them achieve their awakening and begin to understand their life’s mission when they leave the palace.

In the Buddhist story, Buddha’s father receives a prophecy that if his son witnessed any suffering, he would discard his opportunity to be a ruler and instead become a religious leader. And, in fact, one day Buddha ventures out of the palace walls and he sees, for the first time, a poor man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. This experience makes him aware of how distant his existence in the palace had been from the typical human existence, and he becomes driven to find the way to relieve humanity of that suffering.

Whereas the Torah tells us hardly anything about Moses’ early life in the palace, a well-known Midrash says that Pharaoh’s advisors were concerned that some day in the future, Moses would take Pharaoh’s empire away from him, making Pharaoh wary of his adopted grandson. (Exodus Rabbah 1:26) When Moses ventures outside of the palace walls, he confronts the injustice of slavery for the first time. He witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, identified by the Torah as “one of his brethren,” indicating Moses’ growing awareness that he is connected to them. (Exod. 2:11) Moses strikes the taskmaster, who then dies. Before the chapter is over, Moses intervenes in two more conflicts. In a conflict between two Hebrew slaves who are arguing, Moses stands with the victim against the aggressor. (v. 13) Upon realizing he is a wanted man and must flee from Egypt, Moses travels to Midian and intervenes to aid the seven daughters of Jethro in their conflict with some aggressive shepherds. In each encounter, Moses comes to the aid of the vulnerable party in the conflict. Almost immediately after these three stories, we read that God appoints Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1). Perhaps God sees from these three stories that Moses has the skills, energy, and empathy necessary to fulfill such a task of liberating a vulnerable people from its oppressors.

Religious people respond in a wide variety of ways when they learn that there are apparent similarities between their own religious texts and the texts of other religions. Some take great delight in these similarities and regard them as additional evidence that all religious and spiritual paths are variations on a common theme. Some others have so much discomfort that they seek to demonstrate that any such similarities are only superficial, serving simply to highlight the profound differences under the surface between the religious doctrines of the different religions.

My own approach – to these similarities between the stories of the early life of Moses and Buddha, as well as other apparent similarities between Jewish and other religious texts – is different from both of these approaches. I do not want to overlook the substantial differences between a Jewish and a Buddhist world view, but I also don’t suggest that these two paths have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, I take delight in what the commonalities of these stories can remind us about the human condition and the role of a leader. In both of these stories, the leaders can only attain insight and begin the leadership journey after leaving behind their comfortable surroundings. Each of them could have stayed in the palace, living a life of privilege and insulation from the troubles of the world, but in each case, they discovered their life mission only upon leaving the palace. For each of them, coming face to face with the pain of their brethren is what awakens them to a life of service (and it is no surprise that the notion that they would leave the palace is threatening and destabilizing to the king in each story).

This story sounds familiar. Whatever differences there are between different paths of religious responsibility, a commonality is the imperative to be willing to leave one’s familiar and comfortable surroundings, and to stand in the presence of one who is experiencing pain. For many of us – of all faiths – this is where the commitment to being a religious leader begins.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.