“He went out to his brothers and looked on their suffering” Exodus 2:1


By analysing the opposite state of happiness, that of misery, we can learn much about this vague human aspiration.

The first mention of the word suffering in the Bible is in a verse which describes Moses’s first venture out of the palace and into a world rife with injustice and misfortune: “He went out to his brothers and looked on their suffering”.

The Midrash expounds on the specific type of suffering referred to in the verse: “Moses saw heavy burdens put upon weak people and light burdens upon strong people etc... so he rearranged their burdens... God said to him: ‘You have shared the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; I too, will leave those on high and below and speak only with you’.”

Remarkably, according to this midrash, the quality for which Moses was singled out for leadership by God was his profound understanding of human nature.

Moses understood that just as we experience misery when we work beyond our capacity, there is a particular discomfort and psychological angst that comes with underachievement and a sense that we are not living up to our potential.

Pain comes in different forms.

There is the physical torment of a strained body, an exhausted heart and an overworked mind, and there is the existential agony of an aimless soul feeling underused and wasted.

Conversely, there is the carefree delight we derive from the absence of worries and stress and there is the inner gratification we experience when we are pushed to the outer limits of our potential, and our time and talent is fully optimised and realised.

Moses understood what many leaders, teachers, and parents do not; namely, that fostering a sense of purpose and fulfilment in those entrusted to our care is as — or more — important to their wellbeing and happiness as the alleviation of physical, emotional and mental discomfort.

It was Moses’s act of personalising the burden each person carried and thus pushing every individual to fulfil their unique potential that first distinguished Moses for leadership and spiritual guidance.

Especially in our era of increasing prosperity, privilege, convenience and comfort, we would do well to do the same for those in our care.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson


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