Writings / Moshe: The Emergence of a Leader

Parshat Shmot tells the story of the enslavement, and the beginning of the liberation of the Jews in Egypt. There are many traditions regarding the nature of the Jewish community at the time. The midrash describes how the people had sunk to the “forty-ninth level of impurity”. The general picture which emerges is of a people who had strayed from the path of their forefathers. Our Sages teach us that even circumcision had been abandoned, and Moshe had to force it upon them prior to the Exodus.

THERE AROSE A NEW KING. The Rabbis commenced this discourse with this verse: They have dealt treacherously against the Lord, for they have begotten strange children; now shall the new moon devour them with their portions (Hos. V, 7). This teaches that when Joseph died, they abolished the covenant of circumcision, saying: ‘Let us become like the Egyptians.’ (Midrash Rabbah - Exodus I:8)

Nonetheless we are told that there were some aspects of tradition which remained intact: the Jews retained distinct dress, names, and language. The Meshech Chochma explained that the retention of these three practices was based on a tradition passed on by Ya’akov himself, who had anticipated a deterioration in Jewish life due to the exile. Ya’akov instructed his children that, come what may, they must always keep these 3 basic identifying customs, in the hope that this would curtail the process of assimilation. The Midrash which is the source for this teaching is somewhat obscure; a more accessible Midrash teaches that the Jews were redeemed because they didn't change their names or language, nor did they did speak loshon hara [ 1 ] , or engage in sexual immorality. The source which mentions clothing in place of the latter two items may be found in the Midrash "Shocher Tov", and this is the version which has entered into the consciousness of the Jewish community.

When we consider these three items, it is fascinating to note that Moshe himself, the savior, if you will, seems to be deficient specifically in these areas.

The name of Moshe: Moshe was born into a family from the tribe of Levi. At that time there was an edict that all males be thrown into the Nile River. Moshe was found by the daughter of Pharaoh, floating in a teiva [ 2 ] . The daughter of Pharaoh adopts Moshe and names him.

"And the child grew, and was brought to the daughter of Pharaoh, he became a son to her, she named him Moshe, and she said (explained) "for from the water he was drawn out" (2:10)

Moshe was not given a Jewish name, he was named by an Egyptian princess. Moshe's name, however, contains an element which is far more insidious than simply a non-Jewish origin. The Talmud poses the following question regarding Moshe’s name:

Where is Moshe (‘s name) indicated in the Torah? (Chulin 139b)

When the daughter of Pharaoh named Moshe, what was she trying to communicate? In order to understand the depth of her action, we must first understand who this woman was, and, for that matter who her father thought he was. In the book of Yechezkel the following passage appears;

"Speak and communicate, thus says God, "behold I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt the great crocodile that couches in the midst of the streams who says the (Nile) River is mine, for I created it". (Yechezkel 29:3)

Pharaoh believed that he was god of the Nile, that he created the Nile. The edict decreeing that all male Jewish children be thrown into the Nile becomes more significant in this light: When the midwives refused to kill the males, in a clear act of murder, Pharaoh suggests that they throw the children into the water instead. Why would this have been more palatable than simply killing the children? When we appreciate that Pharaoh declared himself god of the Nile, in effect he was saying "cast the children into the Nile, and the god of the Nile shall decide who will live and who will die", as if the midwives would not be performing the act of murder. This will also give us insight into the first Plague, "blood". Turning the waters of the Nile into blood was perceived by the Egyptians as an act of war, as if someone had stabbed their god.

Not only did Pharaoh think that he was god of the Nile, but he named his daughter "Bitya", "daughter of god".

"And these are the children of Bitya, daughter of Pharoh" (Divri Hayamim I 4:18, also see "Kala Rabbati" 3:23, Vayikra Rabba 1:3)

This was the woman who saved, and named, Moshe. Her father was "god of the Nile" she was daughter of "god", and she pulls a son out of the Nile, and names him Moshe;

"for from the water he was drawn out"(2:10)

Bitya, in naming Moshe, was making a claim which had theological meaning as well as political implications. She was claiming that the Nile had given birth to her son. Of course she knew rationally that one of the Hebrews had in fact given birth to Moshe, but we must recall that casting the children into the Nile was not seen as murder, rather as some type of judgment, perhaps reminiscent of the children left to die in Sparta. Moshe emerges from the Nile alive, which has theological significance for Bitya. He is therefore declared "son of the Nile". She is obviously positioning him to become the next Pharaoh, or at least to take his place among the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Moshe’s name is not merely Egyptian; it is steeped with idolatrous connotations.

This insight also gives us a greater appreciation of Moshe, for we now understand what it must have meant for him to leave the palace and to "seek out his brothers". When Moshe interceded and killed the Egyptian, he was in effect rejecting the entire way of life that was laid out for him. Moshe's heroic act - which has it's spiritual antecedent in the behavior of his great-grandfather Levi- was an act of self - sacrifice for the sake of a fellow Jew. By killing the Egyptian, Moshe forfeited his role in Egyptian society; he would no longer be seen as a god, but only as a Jew, and his chances of one day ascending the throne dissipated. This self-sacrifice was the first step toward assuming the mantle of leadership of the Jews, but of course such considerations were quite foreign to Moshe. In any case, we cannot overlook the irony in Moshe’s name: the savior of the Jews, who retained their distinction in their naming practices, was considered to be a god by the Egyptians, and his name reflected this status and role.

Dress: When Moshe escapes Egypt, he makes his way to Midyon, where he is identified and described as "Ish Mitzri," "an Egyptian man". What was it about Moshe that makes him seem Egyptian?

Was Moshe an Egyptian? Rather, his clothes were Egyptian, but he was a Hebrew (Midrash Rabba 1:32)

The second factor which contributed to the liberation was distinct dress. Here, too Moshe is deficient.

Language: The Jews also retained a different language, preserving Hebrew as their mother-tongue despite the long years in exile. Here, too, Moshe’s credentials seem lacking. The Torah tells us that Moshe had difficulty with speech:

I am not a eloquent man,...but I am slow (kaved) of speech, and slow of tongue. (4:10)

Later, Moshe describes himself as "Orel Sftaim" (6:12,30) which literally means "uncircumcised lips,” referring to some other sort of impediment. Taken literally, it emerges that Moshe does not feel that he has the right to represent the People of Israel because his tongue is “uncircumcised”: Moshe’s speech is too Egyptian.

If, indeed, the Jews were saved because they retained these three basic identifying practices, then Moshe seems an unlikely savior. Why is Moshe chosen? As we saw by Moshe's response to the oppression of his fellow Jew, he certainly did possess leadership qualities. The model of leadership in the Jewish tradition is not the individual who is willing to subjugate others, rather the individual who is willing to sacrifice for others. Moshe, who was the most modest, self-effacing man, will make the finest leader and teacher that our People have had. Furthermore, despite Moshe's upbringing, he rejected his role in Egyptian society, as well as the culture and beliefs of Egypt. This is evidenced by the fact that, after leaving Egypt, we are told:

"And Moshe was the shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock" (3:1)

This seemingly innocent statement speaks volumes when we recall Yosef's warning to his brothers upon their arrival in Egypt: They must find a delicate way to inform Pharaoh of their occupation,

"For every shepherd is considered an abomination in Egypt"(46:34)

Moshe has become a shepherd, the most detestable occupation in the value system of Egypt. Precisely at this time G-d reveals himself to Moshe for the first time, at the "Burning Bush". The rejection of Egyptian life and values is what seems to allow the Divine Revelation.

We can begin to understand why Moshe deserved to be leader: He possessed incredible spiritual integrity. From what sources did Moshe draw the strength to change his life? What inspired Moshe to begin a spiritual quest, an odyssey which would transform him from heir to the Egyptian throne to freedom fighter for the disenfranchised slaves, caring shepherd, vanquisher of the Egyptian empire, leader of the Jews, and ultimately to Mount Sinai, where the destiny of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov would be fulfilled through his receiving and transmitting the Torah?

We can discern within Moshe the traits of his illustrious forefathers. Moshe embodies the Chesed of Avraham, the Gevurah of Yitzchak and the Emet of Ya'akov. All this can be seen in Moshe’s reaction to the Jewish slave who was being beaten. Moshe felt chesed toward the victim; Moshe displayed gevurah by holding back personal considerations and involving himself in the altercation. And finally, Moshe displayed emet by immediately discerning which side was right. Moshe's parents obviously did a very good job educating him in the short time they had with their son before he was taken to the palace.

Moshe certainly earned his leadership role, but why did G-d choose a Jew brought up in the palace as the leader? Evidently, in order for the Exodus to take place, precisely a person like Moshe was needed. There is a powerful lesson about the nature of the Exodus to be learned here: Had He so desired, G-d surely could have simply "willed" the Jews out of Egypt. Why go through the entire process of plagues and negotiations with Pharaoh? The purpose would seem to be twofold: It was necessary both for the Jews and for the Egyptians. After spending all those years in Egypt, the beliefs of the Egyptians would have made inroads into the Jewish community. What better way to show the bankruptcy of the Egyptian belief system than having one of the Egyptian "gods" revealed as a Jew? For the Jews, this would eradicate any nascent belief in Egyptian mythology. Of course, some Jews did find it difficult to totally reject these influences, as can be seen by the sin of the "Golden Calf," but for most Jews the message was loud and clear. While Moshe saw himself as unworthy to lead the Jews, G-d found no one more worthy, specifically because of the attributes Moshe enumerated as his own “faults.”

On the other hand, the message was also important for the Egyptians; they too needed to know that their religion was false. What better teacher than Moshe, the ultimate "insider"? At one point he had dressed like them, talked like them, and they were even prepared to worship him. This theme of educating the Egyptians is articulated in the Haftorah (of Vaeyra), where we are told that one day all the nations of the world will recognize G-d.

And all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the Lord, because they have been a staff of reed to the house of Israel.…And I will scatter Egypt among the nations, and disperse them among the countries; and they shall know that I am the Lord. ( Ezekiel 29:6,30:26)

The redemption from Egypt, which serves as a prototype for our final Redemption, had universal concerns; not merely the removal of the Jews from this foreign land, but a powerful polemic against the greatest civilization in the world at that time. Each of the plagues was designed as a ploy to convince the Jews, on the one hand, and demoralize the Egyptians on the other. But as the Egyptian mythology is revealed as a bankrupt, self-glorifying system, the Egyptian people should have realized the superiority of Jewish thought. In the end, the Egyptians, still convinced of the strength of their god-Pharaoh, follow him into the sea to their deaths. Amazingly, even after ten plagues, they still believed that they stood a chance of victory. We can only imagine the Egyptian leadership encouraging the support of the army, insisting that the Jewish God’s power is limited to dry land, whereas the Pharaoh’s power over the sea is absolute and victory is certain…

When the final redemption comes, it will not be of parochial, Jewish concern. It will be the greatest event in the history of the world, which will convince all the people of the world of the error of their ways. This Jewish concept of Redemption has its antecedent in the redemption from Egypt. Moshe, the unlikely hero, emerges from the very epicenter of the civilization which must be rejected: As the crowning glory of Egyptian culture, Moshe’s rejection of Egyptian life spoke volumes to all who knew him or of him. Though Moshe was himself hesitant to assume the role of savior, his very reluctance made him an even more attractive choice, especially when we recall that a crucial element of the Exodus was the eventual Revelation at Sinai.

And He said, ‘Certainly I will be with you; and this shall be a sign to you, that I have sent you; When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d upon this mountain.’ (3:12)

Moshe is remembered for posterity not so much as redeemer - his name is virtually absent from the Passover Haggadah which tells the tale of the Redemption - rather Moshe is known as “Rabbenu” - our teacher. Surely the redemption was political and geographic, but more importantly, it was theological, and here is where Moshe stands out, as the greatest teacher in our history. Similarly, when the Messiah arrives, part of his task will be political in nature, but the main task is to teach the world the truth and power of G-d.


[ 1 ] Or in an alternative text, "reveal their mystery"

[ 2 ] The last time we saw someone in an ark, it was Noah. Regarding the comparison between Noah, who was indifferent to the plight of his fellow man, and Moshe, who was willing to sacrifice all for his fellow man, see my notes on Parshat Noah5758