How does an individual choose a hero to admire? How does a group choose one?
I asked my students to think about this question as we prepared to discuss Sh'mot, the first portion in the Book of Exodus. It's the first time we meet Moses -- and he acts in ways that might be considered...well, unhero-like.
The portion tells the iconic story of Moses' birth -- how his mother placed him in a basket and sent him down the river to spare him from death at the hands of the Egyptians, which would otherwise have been his fate. Pharoah's daughter finds him and raises him as her own.
In time, Moses learns what his real heritage is, and he leaves the palace one day presumably to try to understand the way of life that should have been his. He comes upon an Egyptian slave-master who is beating a Jewish slave. This apparently enrages him, and he proceeds to kill the slave-master and hide the body. The next day, he comes upon two Hebrew slaves who are fighting, and he tries to break up the fight. This leads one of the slaves to assert, "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?"
The question reveals to Moses that his killing of the Egyptian slave-master is no secret -- so he hightails it out of town.
After reviewing these events, I asked my students: What do you make of this? What do you make of a man who impulsively kills another, hides the body, and then flees? What do you make of a man who won't take responsibility for what he has done? How does a person like this become one of our most revered historic leaders?
The ensuing conversation was fascinating, as most of the students sought to find a way to excuse Moses for his actions.
Some maintained that Moses is very young in this part of the story, and that he matures from this point to the point where he leads the Jewish people from slavery.
Some pointed out that Moses, like many Torah characters, is flawed. They add that he also behaves impulsively later in the Torah --when he smashes the tablets, for example, and when he strikes the rock in search of water. Moses ultimately gets punished for his angry nature, they said, when he dies without having entered the Promised Land.
But interestingly, some students chose to focus on his encounter with the two fighting slaves. When Moses approached them, my students pointed out, they could have stopped fighting and praised Moses for killing the slave-master. They could have thanked Moses for putting an end to the slave-master's cruel behavior.
Instead, however, they refused to embrace Moses as their kinsman; quite the contrary, they rebuffed him and challenged him.
Essentially, my students told me, Moses was caught between a rock and a hard place. He didn't identify with the Egyptian--and yet, the Hebrews didn't identify with him. He was at one with nobody; he was alone in his struggle to understand the world in which he lived. No wonder he had to flee, they said. Perhaps he removed himself from that violent world in a search for understanding about himself and his role.
In this way, my students once again found their own essential struggles in the stories of the Torah. Middle-school students live in an emotionally dangerous world. They know how it feels to think you're doing something right, but then get called on it by the very people you thought you were helping. They know how it feels to face insults and harshness from those you expected to welcome and embrace you.
My students told me that this experience probably taught Moses a great deal about human nature, and helped him grow into the leader he eventually became.
Sad to say, sixth graders know how it feels to have people turn on you when you least expect it, and they know how that can make you question yourself and refrain from stepping up and speaking out.
I hope that my students also will know the satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause and leading people towards something better.