The day after killing a Mitzri who was striking a fellow Jew, Moshe Rabeinu tried to intervene in another fight, this time between two Jews, and was promptly told to mind his own business. "Will you kill me as you killed the Mitzri?" challenged one of the combatants. "Now the matter is known," said Moshe.(2:14)
The simple pshat in the pasuk is that Moshe now realized that his killing of the Mitzri was public knowledge and would endanger his life. Rashi, however, quotes a Midrash that Moshe was saying that now, after being made the object of lashon ha'ra, gossip to the Pharoah, he understood why the Jewish people deserved to be persecuted with harsh labor [I am not at all clear on why Rashi is dissatisfied with the simple pshat and needs to add a Midrashic explanation here.]
Did Moshe not know that there was a decree made long ago at the Bris bein haBesarim that the Jewish people would be sent into galus? Was Moshe unaware (as described in various Midrashim, see Rambam end of ch 2 of Hil Avodah Zarah) that the Jewish people in Egypt had largely abandoned the practices that were a hallmark of the Avos? Why was it this act of defamation alone which brought Moshe to understand why the Jewish people deserved the suffering imposed upon them?
Allow me my own explanation first and then to what some of the meforshim have to say. It is one thing to understand in the abstract, in theoretical realm, why punishment occurs. It is easy to be an armchair philosopher and engage in speculative theodicy when the other guy is the one suffering. "I feel your pain," even if said with empathy and real feeling, is not the same as being in pain. It's much harder when it is happening to you. Moshe Rabeinu knew about the gezeirah of galus, he knew that the behavior of the Jewish people as not up to snuff, but all that was textbook knowledge that had to do with a people that, until this point, he lived apart from. Now, he was one of them. Now, threatened with exposure to Pharoah, with his life in danger, the consequences of galus suddenly became real. "Now, I understand," said Moshe -- it's no longer theory; it's my life.
Many of the meforshim here say the same idea (Taz, Sifsei Chachamim echoes it, Ksav Sofer) that the Meshech Chocham in Parshas Beshalach brings out nicely. Why is it, asks the Meshech Chochma, that the angelic Sar of Mitzrayim did not once object to the punishment of the Egyptians during the ten makkos, yet on Yam Suf we are told that this Sar objected to the Jewish people being saved at the expense of the Egyptians, arguing that both Jews and Egyptians were idolaters -- why do the former deserve to be saved and the latter drowned? The Meshech Chochma quotes the Midrash (see Ramban as well) that the Jewish people split into competing camps at Yam Suf and were arguing about what to do. Not so in Egypt, where the people were united. When there is unity among the Jewish people, even if they serve idols or commit other offenses against Hashem, He is willing to overlook those misdeeds. The "tzibur," the collective entity of Klal Yisrael, has the guarantee of always being treated with benevolence by Hashem. However, when the people are splintered, when they turn against each other, when there is no longer a collective "tzibur" to speak of, on an individual level there is no guarantee of getting off, of benevolence, of redemption. The Sar of Mitzrayim could not voice any argument against the collective unit of Klal Yisrael as it was in Egypt, but once the people broke into subgroups at Yam Suf he felt free to argue that no individual member of the Jewish people deserved better treatment than an Egyptian, as both were idolaters.
Returning to our parsha, what perplexed Moshe was not the exile itself -- this was foretold in advance at the Bris bein haBesarim. What perplexed Moshe was the fact that in this exile the Jewish people suffered such persecution at the hands of their Egyptian tormentors. Why did it have to be this way? How could the Egyptians gain such an upper hand over the Jewish people? Once he saw the gossip, the assault on character, the disloyalty and disunity between Jews, he understood. Once the nation became a group of individuals and not a collective tzibur, the Egyptians had the upper hand.
Maharal takes it to an even deeper level. It's inyana d'yoma: I bet you didn't know (I didn't either till my wife pointed it out) that Jan 2 is World Introvert Day. Maharal sets up a dichotomy between persecution, which is external, chitzoniyus, and geulah and freedom, which is pnimi. A person who has no inner compass, who has no sense of self that is reserved and never of display in public, is someone who by definition is beholden to outside fores and influences. He is a slave to how society defines him, how his job defines him, what others in his community think of him, what the world makes of his existence. I'm biased because I am an introvert and I think other introverts relate to this idea pretty easily, but it would wrong to say it does not apply as well to extroverts just because they feel more drawn to share of themselves with others. A Jew has to have a sense of pnimiyus; there has to be something more beneath the surface (see this post on tzniyus.) When sharing with others, you don't have to let it all hang out and don't need to listen to what they want to hang out there. Not everything needs to be shared on Facebook; we don't need a Tweet telling us what you are eating for breakfast. I read recently that there are theaters now offering special seats to people who want to text or tweet or whatever with their gadgets while they watch a movie or play. These people are addicted to chitzoniyus. If it remains inside, to them it's not real. They have to share everything and anything with others, because if it's not out there, if it's not shared with society at large inviting feedback and affirmation from others, it's not real. The Torah view is exactly the opposite -- what's most real is what remains inside; all too often what is outside is just a false facade that has no real truth or meaning to it.
When Moshe saw a Jew running to spread gossip, he saw shibud -- he saw enslavement to society, at the expense of inner reserve. Physical enslavement is just a manifestation of the spiritual disease that had taken root.
But, writes the Maharal, are we so much worse than others? Why should we deserve persecution for our lack of pnimiyus more than any other people?
The answer is, says the Maharal, is only those who are blessed with having a deep reserve of pnimiyus can be subject to the punishment of desecrating that gift.
The Sefas Emes (5632) ties it all together. What unites Klal Yisrael, what forges that shared sense of "tzibur," is a shared core inner values. It's not what's on the outside, but what's on the inside that we all have in common. When there is gossip and rumor, when what's said in the outside world becomes more important than what's on the inside, then that unity is destroyed, and shibud and galus take root. Last week we discussed the Sefas Emes' torah on the character of Yosef, who we know kept his true self hidden away, hidden from the Egyptians who thought of him as one of their own, even hidden from his brothers till he was forced to reveal himself. Yosef is the ideal of pnimiyus, the antithesis of shibud. It's no wonder that the true persecution of Egyptian exile did not begin until a Pharoah arose "asher lo ya'da es Yosef," until this ideal of Yosef was lost. And as we wrote in that post, it is this idea of pnimuiyus which was rekindled (pun intended) through the image of the burning bush, which revealed to Moshe that the neshoma inside still burned strong, even though the outside showed only thorns and thistles.