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Moshe - A Man of Justice or a Family Man

Rav Yaakov Beasley
In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner z"l.





The book of Shemot begins with a list of the names of the children of Israel who accompanied Jacob in his descent to Egypt.  As Yaakov's family transforms into a nation, however, the names and concurrent sense of individuality disappears.[1] Once made up of towering personalities who wrestled with God, the Jewish people have become faceless and nameless - and all the easier to objectify and persecute.  Even the opening verses of Chapter 2, which describes the birth of Moshe, maintains this shroud of anonymity – "A man of the tribe of Levi went and married a woman from the tribe of Levi." 


Midway through the second chapter, however, the Torah's emphasis on anonymity comes to a halt.  Upon receiving the freshly weaned child that she had rescued from the river and given over to a Hebrew wet-nurse (from her point of view), it is none other than Pharaoh's daughter who holds the young child and names him:


The child grew, and the woman presented him to Pharaoh's daughter, who took him as her son.  She called his name "Moshe," for she said: "I have drawn him from the water" (MiShitiHu)" (Exodus 2:10). 


Careful readers note the irony here – the person to break the silence of names that pervades the story comes from no other place than Pharaoh's house!   This parallels a larger theme within the story – the deliverance comes from within the source of destruction.[2]  The river where countless Jewish babies drowned becomes the river where the Jewish people's future savior is rescued, and the river will serve as the location of the first confrontation between the hard-hearted tyrant and the redeemer, armed only with the staff and word of God.  Pharaoh's house, the source of so many decrees of evil and suffering, becomes the place that raises and educates the future savior of the enslaved people.  What generates this transformation? 




To appreciate how this change occurs, let us outline the story of Moshe's birth.


A. Moshe' first family – an unnamed man and daughter of Levi (2:1) - "And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi; and the woman conceived and bore a son."

B. Moshe' first mother cares for him and builds the reed basket (2:2, 3).

C. Miriam stands from afar "to know" what will be done (2:4).

D. Pharaoh's daughter finds Moshe in the basket (2:5,6).

C'. Miriam "knows" what to do and offers her mother as a wet-nurse (2:8).

B'. Moshe's first mother cares for Moshe by feeding him (2:9).

A'. Moshe is given to his new family – the daughter of Pharaoh, who names him (2:10) - "And the child grew up and she brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh and he became a son unto her, and she called his name Moshe, and she said: 'For I drew him (meshitihu) from the water.'"


By emphasizing the story's center, the chiasm helps us to identify the narrative's turning point – Pharaoh's daughter's discovery of Moshe in the river:


Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, attended by her maidens.  She saw the box among the rushes and sent her maidservant to fetch it.  She opened it and saw him, the boy, and behold (ve-hineh), the child was crying.  She took pity upon him, and she said: "He is a Hebrew child!" (Shemot 2:5-6).


The Hebrew word for behold (ve-hineh) serves a special function in Biblical narrative.  When this word appears, it denotes a change in perspective from that of the narrator to the viewpoint of the character involved.[3]  Here, the Torah treats us to a rare glimpse of the inner thoughts of one of the main characters.  As she reaches for the basket, what will Pharaoh's daughter see?  Will it be one of the accursed slaves' children trying to avoid his inevitable fate?  Her exclamation immediately displays that she is aware of Moshe's heritage.  In the end, what she sees, and what ultimately moves her, are a baby's cries.  That pity leads her to choose to adopt the young infant, a fact the text underscores: "And he was a son to her" (2:10). 


Several other textual clues demonstrate that Pharaoh's daughter supplants Yocheved as Moshe's mother.[4]  The first is the comparison alluded to above in the chiasm between the two times that Yocheved cares for Moshe.  The first time, the Torah uses eight verbs to describe the steps that Yocheved took to protect her child, "And she conceived … and she gave birth … and she saw … and she hid him … and she took … and she smeared … and she placed the boy in it … and she placed it among the reeds."  The expansive description of Yocheved's actions serves to emphasize how every step that she took, no matter how small, was performed out of love with the purpose of saving her beloved child.  In contrast, the Torah is sparing in its description of the care she gave Moshe when he was returned to her to breast-feed – "she took the boy … and she fed him … and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter."  To some extent, the child is no longer entirely hers.


The second textual clue is that the Bible reserves the right to name the child for Pharaoh's daughter.  While Yocheved and her family must have had a name by which they called the baby before abandoning him to the river,[5] the text only mentions the Egyptian name Moshe.  In similar fashion, in Bereishit, both Rachel and Leah named the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, their maidservants.  Rav Elchanan Samet suggests, "They see themselves as the mothers of those sons because it was they who gave the maidservants to Yaakov in order that the children who would be born would be considered theirs."[6]  In our story, it is Pharaoh's daughter who, through naming (and ultimately defining him), has the last word.




Having left the confines of his enslaved family to grow up within the spacious walls of Pharaoh's palace, Moshe then leaves those walls to see what life was like outside the palace walls:


And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. (2:11)


What follows are three quick, short episodes:  (1)  Moshe saves a slave from the hand of an Egyptian taskmaster; (2) He intervenes in a quarrel between two Jews, and finally (3), having fled to Midian, he aids Reuel's daughters when they were harassed by the shepherds of Midian.  The three events serve to highlight a central element of Moshe's personality, and justify his eventual choice by Hashem as the redeemer of His people.  The Rambam explains the significance of Moshe's actions as follows:


Prophecy begins when a man is Divinely guided in the performance of a major good geed, such as delivering a large group of people from attack, saving a highly important person, or influencing many people towards righteousness.  When an individual is inspired in this way and finds within himself the impetus to act, we say that he has been "cloaked in" or "invested with" the Divine Spirit – ru'ach ha-kodesh.  Be aware that such inspiration never departed from Moshe once he reached adulthood.  Through it, he was aroused to kill the Egyptian and to deter the wrongdoing in the quarrel of the two Jews.  So strong was it in him tat even after he fled to Midian, frightened stranger though he was, he could not bear the sight of injustice, neither could he desist from removing it, as it is written, "Moshe rose to their aid (2:17)." (Moreh Nevuchim II:45)


However praiseworthy Moshe's actions, the commentators disagree about his motivations.  The midrash unabashedly understands his behavior as stemming from his sense of fraternal identification:


Hashem said, "You have set aside your personal affairs and gone to observe the suffering of Israel, treating them like brothers.  Therefore, I shall set aside the beings of both Heaven and earth to speak to you."  This is the meaning of the verse, "Hashem saw that he turned aside to see" (Shemot 3:4).  Hashem saw Moshe turn aside from his own affairs to see their suffering.  Therefore, "He called to him from within the bush."  (Bereishit Rabba)


However, this understanding is not universal among the commentators.  Here is the reaction of Rav Moshe Sofer, the famed leader of Hungarian Jewry at the beginning of the 19th century:


Even at first glance, Moshe is a man who cannot tolerate injustice.  On the first day he goes out to his brethren, he witnesses an Egyptian committing an evil deed and kills him.  Although the Egyptians ruled over the Jews, Moshe, who possessed a proud love of truth, could not stand the sight of oppression.  On the second day as well, he proved himself in the realm of injustice even when his own brethren were involved.  Finally, he acted even to stop local Midianite shepherds from mistreating Yitro's daughters.  Although Moshe at the time was a wandering stranger fleeing for his life, he still rose to save them.  He asked for no recompense, going on his way until he was summoned to eat with Yitro's family.  Moshe loved truth and uprightness above all else.  (Commentary of the Chatam Sofer)


Can we uncover what Moshe's motivations really were?  To do so, we must look at the structure of chapter 2 as a whole. 




Our earlier discussion, the process of Yocheved losing her claim to Moshe' maternal allegiance, reflects a larger process within the chapter – the underlying question of Moshe' self-identity.  The chapter recounts three incidents involving conflict, each one with an oppressor afflicting an oppressed person or group, in which Moshe appears suddenly as the rescuer.  In the first incident, Moshe saves a Hebrew slave from an Egyptian taskmaster; in the second, he rescues one slave from another; and the final incident sees him protecting the non-Israelite daughters of Yitro from non-Israelite oppressors.  Clearly, his passionate pursuit of justice was independent of his profound love for his people.  However, when we look at the structure of the chapter, we notice that in addition to the pursuit of justice, another issue appears; at the end of the chapter, who is Moshe really?


A. Marriage of Moshe' parents, and the birth of their son, Moshe, which leads to his expulsion from the family.

B. Moshe taken by the king's daughter to her home

C. Moshe successfully rescues the Hebrew from the Egyptian.

D. Moshe's unsuccessful attempt to rescue his brethren leads to his exile.

C'. Moshe successfully rescues the Midianite girls from the shepherds. 

B'.  Moshe is taken by a priest's daughter to her home.

A'. Moshe's marriage and the birth of his son; he dwells contently with his wife's family.


Two themes emerge from this structure.  First, the careful reader notes that throughout the chapter, Moshe is unable to find a home until he dwells with Reuel's family. Until then, he has been tossed turbulently, sometimes literally, from place to place - from his birth home within Israel to Pharaoh's palace - only to renounce that identity when he confronts the vicious evils of slavery.  His newfound identification with his birth people, however, is shattered when the people he attempts to assist turn on his generosity.  Betrayed by them to Pharaoh, Moshe flees into the desert.  Only within Reuel's tent does he find peace. 


Restoring Moshe's identity becomes one of the underlying themes of the remainder of the book, beginning with his charge by God in Chapter 3 and brought to a climax by the angel's attempt to kill him in the inn in Chapter 4 for his failure to circumcise his child. 


More importantly, throughout the chapter, we see that Moshe is dramatically successful when dealing with conflicts involving non-Jews.  However, when confronted with internal difficulties and fights with or between Jews, Moshe is markedly less successful.  This clearly foreshadows his eventual future as the leader and redeemer of his people, in which he capably and bravely stands up to the Pharaohs, Amalekites, and Emorites that threaten his people.  However, as the rest of his life shows, he often fails when confronted with the murmurings, the uprisings, the gathering of the Spies, and the Golden Calf, etc.  Our chapter highlights Moshe's achilles heel, foreshadowing the complicated and thorny relationship he will have with the people he is destined to lead.



[1] The 16th Italian commentator Obadiah Seforno interprets the word "ve-yishretzu" (Shemot 1:7; lit. and they swarmed) as follows:

After the seventy original immigrants had died, they tended towards the ways of the sheratzim (impure reptiles).  They managed their lives as if they were running towards the abyss (a pun on the Hebrew – sheratzim / she-ratzim – running).


[2] The purpose of Moshe being "raised by the enemy" has long been a source of discussion and speculation among the commentators.  In my opinion, the most convincing rationale belongs to the 11th century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (Shemot 2:4):

"The thoughts of God are deep; who can perceive His secret? To Him alone the plot is clear. Perhaps God caused it to come about that Moshe would grow up in the royal palace so that his soul might be habituated to be on the highest level, not lowly and accustomed to being in a house of slaves. For do we not see that he kills the Egyptian for performing an act of unjust violence? And he saves the Midianite daughters from the shepherds, for they perform unjust violence in watering their flocks from the water drawn by them (the daughters of Re'uel). And moreover: had he grown up among his brethren, such that they had known him since his youth, they would not be in awe of him, for they would consider him as one of them."

[3] See Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, p. 62:  "Often a statement of perception includes the word hinneh, which is known to sometimes mark the perception of a character as distinct from that of the narrator."

[4] In an article in Megadim 22 (Tamuz, 5754), Rav David Tee explains:

"The story opens with the birth of this son and concludes with the adoption of the son. In a certain sense, these framing verses of the story conveys the essence of what happens, while the plot that develops within the framing verses is simply an expansion of it… The framing verses therefore express the story's essence: the exchange of mothers. It would seem appropriate for the pattern of 'and she conceived… and she bore… and she called him…' to occur in succession, such as we find in the case of many other mothers who give birth, but this is not what happens here… The child is transferred from the guardianship of one mother to that of a different one… The calling of the name… is done by Pharaoh's daughter, rather than by the natural mother. THE PLOT describes the transition from the house of the mother to the house of Pharaoh's daughter, but the FRAMING VERSES illuminate the way in which Pharaoh's daughter truly steps into the shoes of the mother, becoming the one who leaves her stamp upon him."

[5] The Rabbinic tradition (Sota 12b) suggests that his original Hebrew name was Tuviyah.

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