The personal and public biography of Moses is seemingly well-known to anyone who has seen one of the movies. But a well-balanced approach to the facets of Moses’ life is needed to allow one to really understand why he is so central to Jewish history.
Our purpose here, however, is not historical, but rather to see what we can learn from this history. As Maimonides writes:1
Every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses, or as wicked as Jeroboam, clever or stupid, merciful or cruel, mean or noble, or indeed to possess any of the other temperaments. Nobody can force one, decree upon one, or lead one into one of the ways. Rather, one should choose a way through one's own free will…
When Maimonides is searching for an example of someone who took all his talents and utilized them to the fullest, the choice is Moses. Each facet of Moses’ life presented him with challenges, which he overcame and provided the tools for the next phase of his and the Jewish nation's history.
We can divide Moses’ life into three stages.
1) Preparation for Prophecy
- Moses is born at a time when the Jewish people are consigned to harsh slavery, with a decree that all Jewish boys are to be killed.
- As a baby, Moses is placed floating in the Nile, where he is rescued by the sympathetic daughter of Pharaoh, who raises Moses in the royal palace.
- As a young adult, Moses witnesses a Jew getting beaten by an Egyptian; Moses kills the Egyptian and is forced to flee to Midian.
- In Midian, Moses marries Tzipporah, the daughter of Yitro (the Midianite priest of idolatry who later converts to Judaism).
2) Prophecy and Plagues
- While out tending Yitro’s sheep, Moses comes upon the Burning Bush; God instructs him to return to Egypt and free the Jews.
- Moses presides over deliberations with Pharaoh, as God sends the Ten Plagues.2
- Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, through the split sea, and to the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.3
3) Torah and Desert
- Moses leads the Jews through 40 years of trials in the desert as lawgiver and leader.4
- Moses dies on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, without being allowed to enter it.5
The later stages of Moses’ life will be dealt with in separate essays during our journey through Chumash. Here we will focus on the beginning of Moses' life, and the choices that molded him into the giant he was. As we saw from Maimonides, what is important are not the traits, talents, and deficiencies that person may be born with, but the moral choices and decisions that a person makes. That is how one reaches perfection.
Moses is born at a terrible time of Jewish exile in Egypt. Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish boys be drowned in the Nile. His astrologers6 had predicted that the savior of the Jewish people, would suffer a downfall through the medium of water. So to forestall his birth, Pharaoh decreed to drown all the Jewish boys.7
Moses is born and in an attempt to save him, his mother Yocheved places him in a basket in the Nile, as his sister Miriam watches to see what will happen. Moses is found by Princess Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, who is impressed by the light emanating from the child8 and adopts him as her own.
Yet a problem arises what to feed the baby. In those days, there was no bottled baby formula, so when the birth mother wasn't available, the caretaker would hire a wet nurse. In the case of Moses, he kept refusing to nurse from Egyptian women, until finally Pharaoh's daughter found one woman who Moses agreed to nurse from – Yocheved, Moses' biological mother!9
God's sense of irony is a theme that repeats throughout Torah thought.10 In this story, what could be more ironic than the maturation of Pharaoh's nemesis in his own home, by his own daughter, in direct contradiction of his express command. This is not a vindictive exercise, but a serious part of Torah thought. There are two ways to try to comprehend the existence of evil in the world. One, that evil is independent of God and God needs to overpower some opposite sovereign force. The other, is that evil is one of God's tools and is needed to create a world where we have free choice.
The difference will be found in how evil is overcome. If evil itself is co-opted to ultimately serve God's purpose, then it is not an independent force, but one of God's servants, too. Thus to emphasize that the evil of Pharaoh was itself part of a plan, the one who defeats the evil – Moses – is nurtured by the evil ruler himself.
This episode has served to encourage Jews throughout our current long exile, for we see that in the Jewish people’s darkest hour, the process of redemption begins.
The Ibn Ezra11 points out another advantage of Moses' unusual childhood. A child raised as a slave might not have had the courage and fortitude to stand up to Pharaoh. Moses needed to be raised as a prince to have the confidence to act when he sees injustice and oppression.
Further, if he was just another run-of-the-mill Jewish youth, Moses might not have been taken as seriously by his peers and elders. The mysterious stranger appearing from a unique background lent him the aura he needed to be listened to. Obviously, without the backing of true spirituality and leadership it would be valueless, but it added an important aspect.
As Moses approaches adulthood, he has two paths. On one hand, having been raised in Pharaoh's palace, he can reject his Jewish background and lose himself in the sybaritic pleasures of the royal house of Egypt. On the other hand, he can see what is happening to his birth-nation and be moved to action.
This seems to be the first time that Moses is faced with such a moral choice. His becoming the leader of the Jewish people is not just an accident of circumstances, but a series of choices that ultimately leads him to leadership and greatness.
When Moses goes out and sees the servitude of the Jews, he identifies with them, and begins to try to free them. Moses sees the Jew getting beaten and not only demonstrates empathy, but takes the next step to action. “Moses looked here and there, and when he saw there was no man,” he killed the Egyptian to save the Jew.12 The explanation is that Moses looked to see who was available to help and, finding no one, applied to himself the Talmudic dictum: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.”13
Ultimately, when the deed is discovered, Moses is forced to flee the palace – under the threat of death. This sets the stage for the rest of his life. When God says to him after the sin of the Golden Calf, "Let me destroy the nation and establish you as the forefather of a new nation,”14 Moses has already been there, and can easily reject this offer.
During Moses’ escape he is faced with another and more difficult choice: He is tested to show empathy not only for his brethren, but even for strangers. Yitro, the former high priest of Midian, has rejected idolatry. As a result he and his family are denied use of the community watering hole. When Moses sees the daughters of Yitro being denied fair use of the water resources, he is moved to save them from this injustice. As a result, he marries Yitro's daughter Tzipporah.15 This is the sign of a new level of moral perfection.
Like many of our other great leaders,16 Moses became a shepherd. This occupation allows a person time to contemplate man and nature. However, the interaction with living sentient creatures keeps the shepherd’s moral compass on target. This is illustrated in an event recounted in the Midrash:17
One of the lambs ran away from the flock. Moses gives chase, and when he finally catches up to the lamb, he finds it lapping thirstily at a spring. Says Moses, “I was unaware that the reason for your flight was that you were thirsty. You must be exhausted. Let me carry you back to the flock.” When God sees this degree of care and concern, He says, “If you have such love for sheep, I can entrust you with my flock – the people of Israel.”
The final test before Moses returns to Egypt is another value judgment: Do I graze the sheep close to home, where I may end up trespassing on someone else's property? Or do I, at great cost to myself, take them far out into the desert where the land is open and ownerless? Moses chooses the latter. As a result, this leads to his first communication with God at the Burning Bush.
Selected for Leadership
Most great religious leaders spend their youth in ecstatic visions or prophecies. Moses is never portrayed as a religious ecstatic with visions of God. His early history is all about interpersonal relationships:
- empathy for his own people when he could easily choose to ignore them
- empathy for the stranger and a strong sense of justice
- compassion for all of God’s creatures, and utmost dedication to those in his care
- extreme care to not steal or trespass
Only after Moses passes this series of ethical and moral tests is he entrusted with the responsibility of leadership and prophecy.
When Moses first glimpses the bush, he makes a fateful decision. He can choose to keep his head in the sheep and ignore this strange phenomenon. Or, he can be curious, and try to figure out what is going on. If he would not have gone to examine the bush, he would have gone off into oblivion. A person who is not acutely aware of environmental shifts – and is then willing to take risks based on that knowledge – will not accomplish.
This prophecy is quite unusual. One would expect that when God calls a person to lead the nation, he would be eager to do so. However, this is only the first of many debates with God, with Moses begging off the job.
The great Mussar sages point out a humbling lesson. In a world where "I" come first, and we are all constantly connected to our iPods, Moses’ primary concern is that his role as leader should not cause an affront to his older brother Aaron. Only after God gives an assurance that Aaron will be Moses’ partner in the redemption, and that Aaron will be glad in this role, does Moses finally agree.18
Hard of Speech
The final piece of this mosaic is Moses’ speech impediment. When Moses was a baby in the palace, he playfully put on Pharaoh's crown. To test his ambition, Pharaoh's advisor Balaam placed before him a diamond and hot coal. Moses grabbed the coal and put it to his mouth, thus burning his lips and causing a lisp or stammer.19
The first we hear of this in the verses is when Moses tells God at the Bush, "How will Pharaoh listen to me, as I am hard of speech.”20 There are two levels of understanding. One can well imagine that empathy for others is often born from some sense of discrimination that a person suffered themselves through their life. This provides insight to the moral development of Moses that we previously discussed.
But there is another, more symbolic, aspect to this. In the world of Egypt, there was no room for any Godly speech. When Moses comes to Pharaoh in God's name, the response is, "Who is this god?"21 Moses, who is to speak to history in God's name, is unable to speak clearly to people. His communication is saved uniquely for God. This impediment lasts as long as God is not apparent in the world. But once Moses can speak in the name of God, then his speech is clear and ringing: “Let my people go to serve God!”22 Moses achieves a supernatural healing, as he bears the moral message of God to the world.
From the events described here, we are able to understand God’s choice of Moses as the one to lead the Jews out of Egypt. He is molded by a series of tests into a caring compassionate leader. His sense of intellectual and spiritual curiosity is honed by the years of shepherding in the desert. His youth in the palace makes him courageous enough to stand up to Pharaoh.
That is why one of Maimonides’ 13 principles is that there will never be a prophet like Moses.23 Not only because he brought the Jewish people out of Egypt, and transmitted to them the Torah, but because he honed himself to the peak of human perfection in all ways. This sets the stage for the historical events leading to the Exodus, which we will examine in our next installment.
- Laws of Teshuva 5:2
- Exodus 7-10
- Exodus 11-30
- Deuteronomy 8:2-4
- Deuteronomy 34
- see essay #19: The Balak-Bilaam Duo.
- The astrologers miscalculated slightly; Moses’ eventual downfall was indeed through water, but 40 years later when he hit the rock at Meriva. (Numbers ch. 20; Midrash Rabba – Exodus 1:18)
- Rashi – Genesis 1:4
- Talmud – Sotah 12b; Rashi (Exodus 2:7)
- see Psalms 2:4
- Exodus 2:3
- Exodus 2:12
- Avot 2:6; Midrash Rabba (Exodus 1:29)
- Exodus 32:10
- Midrash Rabba (Exodus 1:32)
- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David
- Midrash Rabba (Exodus 2:2)
- Exodus 4:14; Midrash Rabba (Exodus 3:16); Midrash Sechel Tov (Exodus 5:2)
- Midrash Rabba (Exodus 1:26)
- Exodus 4:10
- Exodus 5:2
- Exodus 10:7
- based on Deuteronomy 34:10