Towards the beginning of Parashat Vaera (6:13), we read that God sent Moshe to confront Pharaoh and also to speak to Benei Yisrael. While the Torah does not specify what exactly Moshe was to communicate to Benei Yisrael, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 3:5) explains, surprisingly, that Moshe conveyed to them the obligation to free indentured servants after six years of service. At the same time Moshe was commanded to confront Pharaoh and demand that he release his Israelite slaves, Moshe was commanded to instruct Benei Yisrael to release their servants – an obligation presented later at Mount Sinai (21:2). Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, explains that although Benei Yisrael were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, they were arranged according to a hierarchical structure, such that certain groups had servants belonging to other groups. Before Benei Yisrael left Egypt, they were commanded to release their fellow Israelites from servitude.
The vital lesson conveyed by the Yerushalmi’s explanation of this verse is that we must look inward to address our own shortcomings even as we work to address external threats. Clearly, Benei Yisrael’s gravest problem at this time was the state of bondage imposed upon them for no fault of their own by the Egyptians. Moshe’s primary task at this point was to confront Pharaoh and communicate to him God’s command to release the slaves and His warning of the devastating consequences of defiance. Additionally, however, Moshe was sent to Benei Yisrael to demand their own compliance with this command. Although Benei Yisrael had certainly not fallen to anywhere near the moral abyss of Pharaoh and his people, who ruthlessly subjugated and persecuted an entire nation, they were not entirely innocent of the crime of oppression. And thus concurrent with Moshe’s confrontations with Pharaoh, he needed to lead Benei Yisrael to correct their own moral failings.
Identifying flaws and faults in others is easy; finding and addressing our own shortcomings is far more difficult. This is especially so when, as in Benei Yisrael’s situation in Egypt, the faults of others are truly glaring and horrific, and far exceed ours in severity. The Talmud Yerushalmi reminds us that at all times and in all circumstances, we must always be scrutinizing ourselves and working to improve. Even as we witness, or even, Heaven forbid, when we are victimized by, grave injustices perpetrated by others, we must never absolve ourselves of the need to introspect, to identify our own faults, and to strive to improve.