This story sounds familiar, I thought.
Sitting in a college religion course, I listened as my professor described the early life of a very significant religious leader in world history, someone who was effectively the founder of one of the world’s major religions.
The story began with this future religious leader growing up in a palace and living a life of spectacular material comforts. As a member of the king’s family, he has plenty of whatever he wants, and he is unaware of any suffering or poverty that exists outside the palace’s walls. In fact, the king does his best to insulate him from witnessing any pain, injustice, or suffering.
One day, this future religious leader ventures out of the palace walls, and what he sees there challenges him deeply and changes him forever. He sees people suffering, recognizes them as his brethren, and realizes that he can no longer return to the palace. He renounces his role as a member of the ruling family and soon begins his role as a spiritual leader and liberator, with a passion for bringing freedom to the oppressed.
My professor was describing the early life of Gautama Buddha, as described in traditional Buddhist texts. Many, however, have noted the remarkable similarities between his story and the story of the early life of Moses, as described in Exodus Chapter 2 (and in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot).
The stories have many differences as well as similarities. For example, Buddha was the son of a king, whereas Moses was an Israelite who was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. But an overwhelming similarity is that both of them achieve their awakening and begin to understand their life’s mission when they leave the palace.
In the Buddhist story, Buddha’s father receives a prophecy that if his son witnessed any suffering, he would discard his opportunity to be a ruler and instead become a religious leader. And, in fact, one day Buddha ventures out of the palace walls and he sees, for the first time, a poor man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. This experience makes him aware of how distant his existence in the palace had been from the typical human existence, and he becomes driven to find the way to relieve humanity of that suffering.
Whereas the Torah tells us hardly anything about Moses’ early life in the palace, a well-known Midrash says that Pharaoh’s advisers were concerned that some day in the future, Moses would take Pharaoh’s empire away from him, making Pharaoh wary of his adopted grandson (Exodus Rabbah 1:22). When Moses ventures outside the palace walls, he witnesses the injustice of slavery for the first time. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, whom the Torah identifies as “one of his brethren,” indicating Moses’ growing awareness that he is connected to them (v. 11). Moses strikes the taskmaster, who dies. Moses realizes he is a wanted man who must flee Egypt — but before the chapter is over, Moses intervenes in two more conflicts.
In a fight between two Hebrew slaves, Moses stands with the victim against the aggressor (v. 13). And after fleeing to Midian, Moses intervenes to aid the seven daughters of Jethro in their conflict with some aggressive shepherds. In each encounter, Moses comes to the aid of the vulnerable party. Almost immediately after these three stories, we read that God appoints Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1). Perhaps God sees from these three stories that Moses has the skills, energy, and empathy necessary to fulfill such a task of liberating a vulnerable people from its oppressors.
Religious people respond in a wide variety of ways when they learn that there are apparent similarities between their own religious texts and the texts of other religions. Some take great delight in these similarities and regard them as additional evidence that all religious and spiritual paths are variations on a common theme. Some others have so much discomfort with such similarities that they seek to demonstrate that any such similarities are only superficial, serving simply to highlight the profound differences under the surface between the religious doctrines of the different religions.
My own approach to these similarities between the stories of the early lives of Moses and Buddha, as well as to other apparent similarities between Jewish and other religious texts, is neither of those two. I do not want to overlook the substantial differences between a Jewish and a Buddhist world view, nor do I want to suggest that these two paths have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, I take delight in what the commonalities of these stories can remind us about the human condition and the role of a religious leader. In both these stories, the leaders can attain insight and begin the leadership journey only after leaving their comfortable surroundings.
Each of them could have stayed in the palace, living a life of privilege and insulation from the troubles of the world, but both discovered their life mission only upon leaving it. For each of them, coming face to face with the pain of their brethren is what awakens them to a life of service (and it is no surprise that the notion that they would leave the palace is threatening and destabilizing to the king in each story).
This story sounds familiar. Despite the significant differences between different paths of religious leadership, a commonality is the imperative to be willing to leave your familiar and comfortable home environment, and to stand in the presence of someone who is experiencing pain. And despite the myriad differences between different religious faiths today, hopefully we can remember that, at least in theory, this common denominator unites us.