This week’s Torah portion is all about appreciating the “underdogs” who defy the odds.
By virtue of an acclaimed Broadway production of recent vintage, many have come to a renewed appreciation of the fascinating story of an American “Founding Father.” His roller-coaster life, punctuated by the key role he played in the shaping of the great experiment called American democracy, inspired the opening words of Hamilton: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
This question speaks to our delightful wonderment when “underdogs” succeed in the face of tremendous challenges and adversity. It reminds us that greatness is not reserved for the privileged few, but rather is available to anyone willing to make the effort necessary to attain it. In this context, we can best appreciate the Torah’s presentation of Moses in this week’s Torah reading.
The Torah withholds information about the lineage of Moses until well into his life and career. Why wait? We would have expected to learn of Moses’ background at the time of his birth. Instead, we are merely told at the time that “a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi, and the woman conceived and bore a son …” This anonymous entry to the world is hardly the introduction we would expect for the most consequential figure in Jewish history.
But, as we find throughout Genesis, it is achievement in life rather than birth order, merit and morality rather than biology, which are of paramount importance.
The success of the underdog has always, and will always, stir within us feelings of hope that we, too, can achieve great things in life. After all, if a penniless orphan from an island in the Caribbean can become one of the most important figures in American history and a foundling Hebrew child born to nameless parents doomed for Egyptian slavery can grow to adulthood as one of the greatest liberators in world history, every single one of us can make it big despite our lack of pedigree or lack of aristocratic standing.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.