Moshe’s Successes in Egypt
The Exodus from Egypt gives us central questions to ask ourselves in life in general—how good are we at submitting to Hashem, when that’s what’s called for, and how good are we at contributing to Hashem’s plan for the world, in creative ways, when that’s what’s needed.
Those questions also offer a convenient way of looking at how well the major characters in the story did. Watching Moshe Rabbenu, the Jewish people, the Egyptian people, and Par’oh succeed or fail will take us deeper into the story, move us along the path to feeling as if we ourselves had been there, had left there.
I start with Moshe because he was the most clearly successful of the four (it’s arguable that Aharon was even more successful, but the text and commentators say too little about his experience to justify a whole discussion; suffice it to say that Aharon acquitted himself quite well all the way until the giving of the Torah). Cataloging the successes commentators found in what he did, and then (tomorrow) his failures, we’ll be reminded of the complications of judicious and appropriate use of freewill.
Moshe Is Born Great
In 1;16, Rashi takes the view that Par’oh decided to drown the Jewish males because his astrologers told him a redeemer was about to be born. At birth (2;2), Moshe’s mother sees כי טוב הוא, that he is “good,” which Rashi reads according to the tradition that the house filled with light. Not only was he “good,” his being destined for greatness was clear to anyone at his birth. Five verses later, Rashi thinks Moshe refused to nurse from Egyptian women because it wasn’t appropriate for a future prophet.
For Rashi, Moshe Rabbenu was destined to be the redeemer, filled the house with light at his birth and, as a newborn, instinctively rejected an inappropriate breast. That may be what happened, but it makes Moshe superhuman from his earliest moments, leaving us little to learn from him; that which we cannot hope to emulate is also not a model towards which to strive.
The Moshe We Can Try To Be
Other commentators portray a more relatable Moshe. Torah Temimah cites opinions that טוב or טובי-ה (goodness of Hashem) was Moshe’s original name, which is why the verse says כי טוב הוא, that he was good. Or that he was born circumcised, his exceptional qualities being expressed as bodily realities. This still assumes that, at birth, his potential was clear to all, but down a notch from Rashi.
Ramban picks up on the superfluity of saying Yocheved saw Moshe was good; most or all mothers see goodness in their children! For him, it means she saw something (perhaps Rashi’s light) to lead her to believe the baby would survive. Other mothers loved their babies as much as Yocheved, and also made efforts to save them. But, convinced that all hope was lost and yet unable to do nothing, they made gestures they themselves were convinced were futile. The text referring to Yocheved seeing Moshe as “good” tells Ramban she saw something to convince her she would succeed. (If she told him this as she nursed him, it would instill a sense of personal destiny).
Moshe Rabbenu was not like us; he was born with some of his future greatness already embedded. Reading his story won’t be so much a matter of seeing if we’d have done as he did, it will be a matter of seeing how he did and did not fulfill his potential, a reminder that success isn’t guaranteed, even for Moshe Rabbenu, that Hashem’s call to our life’s tasks challenges each of us to stretch beyond what’s easy for us, even for Moshe Rabbenu.
Moshe Achieves Greatness
Verses 2;10 and 11 both speak of Moshe growing up, a seeming redundancy. Rashi explains that the first indicates his maturation, the second his rise in the court, Par’oh naming him head of his household. The verses together tell us he grew up and, from that early age, demonstrated leadership capabilities.
Ramban reads those verses as referring to weaning and then maturing to adulthood, with no indication of anything about his development as a leader. That is shown, for Ramban, when Moshe decides to investigate the Jews’ condition. The fact of having been told he was a Jew created a strong enough connection for him to want to see how they were doing.
That same connection, or the sense of justice we’ll see in other events in his life, moved him to kill the Egyptian oppressing a Jew. Raised as Par’oh’s daughter’s son, in the process of climbing the ladder of Egyptian leadership, Ramban sees him as yet somehow inculcated with (or choosing to feel) enough of a bond with his brethren to risk and in fact lose all he had. This was a choice of path and identity that wasn’t obvious or unavoidable. It was a choice he made.
For all the gifts with which he was born, Ramban sees him taking real risks, without any assurance Hashem would protect him from the consequences. In this instance, we can wonder whether we would have been like Moshe. What risks would we take on behalf of others with whom we have a tenuous connection? Would the injustice of one man beating another—especially where we share a more immediate cultural bond with the perpetrator—lead us to risk all we have to save the victim?
Moshe’s Unquenchable Sense of Justice
In the short term, it costs him. He was exposed, Par’oh sentenced him to death, and he fled. Ramban dates those events to his youth, and his marriage to Tzipporah to years later, just before he was sent back to Egypt to start the redemption (since his second child, Eliezer, seems to have been a newborn).
Despite that blank space in his biography, his saving Yitro’s daughters from the other shepherds shows that he had not lost his insistence on justice. Ramban points out that it’s particularly remarkable for a fugitive; Moshe spent half a century or more fleeing Par’oh, and was worried enough about what awaited him in Egypt that Hashem had to assure him that all the people who wanted him dead had themselves left this world.
But when Yitro’s daughters were being mistreated, he didn’t think twice. As with the Egyptian he killed, his rage at the shepherds’ taking water they had not drawn overwhelmed his caution. For Ramban, had the other shepherds only forced the daughters to wait until they were done, he might not have intervened. The girls had come early and filled the troughs, though; by banishing them, the shepherds were stealing the fruit of their labors, which Moshe would not, maybe could not, ignore.
Simple theft, not any need to remake the world, moved Moshe to action.
Reaching the Burning Bush: Moral Fiber or Meditation and Seclusion
His concern with theft underlies Rashi’s reading of the phrase Shmot 3;1 uses for where he tended his sheep, אחר המדבר, far into the desert. For Rashi, that expresses his יראת חטא, being so concerned to avoid sin that he made sure to make it impossible. He would not have felt he had done what he needed to in avoiding theft until he put himself where it wasn’t a possibility.
Sforno suggests that his location also allowed him to be מתבודד ומתפלל, to go into meditative seclusion and pray. Since these are the actions of aspiring prophets. Sforno’s Moshe gravitated to that lifestyle, whether or not he consciously sought prophecy.
Two more actions of Moshe that we could emulate if we tried. Do we avoid acting wrongly, or do we shape our surroundings so as to remove the possibility? Alternatively, do we choose a lifestyle that leads us in a positive direction, whether or not we have a particular outcome in mind? For Rashi and Sforno, Moshe does each.
Bones and Booty
The Torah goes out of its way to note Moshe’s having taken the bones of Yosef when the Jews left. This fulfilled the oath Yosef administered to his brothers, that when they left Egypt, they should take his bones with them. This might count as a failure of the people, too caught up in preparing for the Exodus to fulfill their long-standing obligation, but we can consider it here, in the more positive context of it showing Moshe having held to a firm focus on that which matters most.
Kli Yakar thinks he deliberately sought a mitzvah that expressed different values from the people’s. They were rushing around for unimportant gold and silver, he was focused on mitzvot. He finds it particularly appropriate that it was a mitzvah connected to death, implicitly stressing the ephemerality of physical possessions. Sotah 9b sees this as why Hashem later buried Moshe Himself, as it were; since Moshe involved himself with Yosef’s burial, Hashem repaid the favor.
Sforno takes the opposite view. He claims it was Moshe’s baseline responsibility to take Yosef’s bones, since he was the leader and representative of the people from whom Yosef had extracted the oath. For him, Moshe did his job, no more.
A quick turn through Moshe’s actions shows us a man born great, raised to be great, and developing himself towards that greatness. Whatever advantages he started with, commentators highlight his sense of responsibility and justice, his acting in ways that seemed important and vital, whatever the cost to himself.
Once he encounters Hashem, he struggles to inhabit his role through much of the rest of the Exodus. Later in the Torah we again see him succeeding a great deal, but until the Splitting of the Sea, we see many examples of his not doing as well as he might. As we’ll see tomorrow.