With the second book of Torah, we encounter the newborn Moses, cast adrift in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter sees him and saves him. More precisely, she both sees him and hears him. “She spied the basket among the reeds,” but when she opened it, not yet knowing what was in it, “she saw that it was a child — and the boy (the na’ar) was crying.” Commentators are intrigued by Moses crying, especially because he is described as a na’ar, a word implying someone grown beyond infancy.
Ramban warns against reading too much into the word na’ar — although usually used of someone older, it can denote an infant as well, he insists. But still, the intentional use of a term that implies someone old enough to understand what life is all about attracts attention. The Zohar thinks the Torah deliberately anticipates the cries by Jews in exile over the years — an understanding reiterated by the Kotzker rebbe, who thinks that Moses was crying because even as an infant, he foresaw the tears of the Jewish people throughout time.
This is not the only time Moses cries. Tradition attributes tears to Moses when he learns on Mount Sinai that he will die. As the Talmud understands it, God was dictating the end of Deuteronomy to him. When he heard, “and Moses died,” he cried. Tiferet Shlomo modifies that understanding. What moved Moses to tears was not the phrase, “and Moses died,” but what followed, “a servant of God.” Moses cried at the realization that he would die after devoting his life to serving God; hearing that he would be God’s servant evoked tears of joy — who was he, after all, to merit such a mission?
Perhaps all three are correct. Ramban is right to read nothing into the Exodus account of Moses in the basket. Moses was a baby, and babies cry. End of story. But the Zohar and the Kotzker are right too. The word na’ar anticipates Moses the grown-up crying in sympathy with Jewish suffering. And Tiferet Shlomo also has a point. Moses would cry at Sinai upon anticipating the privilege of doing God’s work in the world.
Three kinds of tears, three stages of development: self-centered tears of childhood distress, sympathetic tears of solidarity with the pain that others suffer, and tears evoked by appreciating our capacity to matter magisterially as nothing less than servants of God.
An infant’s tears flow easily. They are part of growing up. The second kind of tears — the ones shed in sympathy with the pain of others — do not come so naturally. Empathy with others is an accomplishment. We deplore the people who never achieve it as being insensitive, crass, or even cruel.
But the tears we should value most are those we shed in overflowing joy at what our own lives can accomplish. Nothing surpasses the satisfaction that arrives from knowing we have changed the lives of others for the better. No amount of money captures the worth of a hug from a child saved from starvation, a grateful glance from an unemployed worker to whom we have offered a job, or the certainty that we helped plan and then executed a massive project to improve the lives of people we may never even meet.
What inscription would we like upon our tombstone?
“Here lies a hedge-fund genius”?
“She was loyal to the firm”?
“He aced the GREs”?
How about: “Servant of God”?
The imagery of servitude does not come naturally to us, but only because we confuse servitude with slavery. Slavery arrives against our will, sometimes aided by our insecurities and character defects: We become slaves to our job, our appointment book, our appetites. Servitude, however, is purposeful commitment to a higher cause rather than going through life striving for nothing very lofty. To be a servant of God means only that we discipline ourselves to act as God would want us to. What higher aspiration can we have?
Moses cried on Mount Sinai, looking forward to his mission, not on Mount Pisgah looking back upon it, because by then it would have been too late to accomplish it. We, by contrast, have no Sinai from which to take dictation on the life God wants for us. Why wait until we die to see how it all turns out? We cannot plan much with certainty, but we can so live that whenever we die, it will be as servants of God. That promise should bring tears to our eyes.