The birth of a child is greeted with great fanfare – as well it should be. And yet, how strange when we think of our fancy birth announcements to consider the birth announcement of the greatest of all prophets, the one to gaze upon God panim al panim, the one whose name is associated with the eternal Torah! Consider Moshe Rabbeinu and how his birth was “proclaimed” to the world.
A man of the house of Levi went and married Levi’s daughter. The woman became pregnant and had a son.
Nothing spectacular. No divine or virgin birth. Nothing to call attention to the significance of this birth. Just a child, born to a married couple having normal marital relations. Not even a mention of his parents’ names!
Even the poorest Jewish parents manage to announce the birth of a child in the local press or synagogue bulletin, including the names of the parents and grandparents on both sides. Certainly Moses’ birth deserved at least the announcement afforded the least among any Jewish community! And yet, in the narrative of the Torah, his birth announcement is barely noted. Of course, this cannot be by accident or oversight.
We expect that Moses, more than any other man, would be accorded honor and respect from the moment of his birth. But our expectation is created only through the lens of examining his entire life. We know the man he will become. But his becoming that man was not at all predetermined. By recording his birth in the simplest way possible, the Torah is teaching us that, in fact, Moses’ birth was no more worthy than any other child born. It is teaching us that even Moses, the greatest of men and prophets, was born as we all are, from man and woman, from flesh and blood, with no greater potential than any one of us.
The birth of the child who would grow to speak directly with God; the child who would grow to be the man able to enter into the prophetic state at will and to transcend the corporeal state completely was no different than any other child’s birth. At birth, Moses was just like you and me! He was born from mortal ish and mortal bat. Like you and me. No better. No worse. It was only by his strengths and his determination that he grew, developed and matured into one with whom God could speak “mouth to mouth.”
Social scientists and biologists spend their professional lives arguing about the balance between “nature and nurture” when it comes to the developing person. The Torah teaches us, by this example, that we become the person we are capable of being by our lives, not by the event of our births. The Sefer Ha-Yuchsin makes clear that Moshe’s parents and their names are irrelevant to what he ultimately became. Each of us is born with innate gifts, attributes, qualities, and characteristics. But these gifts and attributes are only potentials. If one has the attributes to become the redeemer, one must still, of his own will, energy and desire fully develop and realize their potential. That means a great deal of time and energy to turn God given gifts into actuality.
Many people are born with leadership attributes. Those who are determined to realize the potential of those attributes can ultimately become a Moshe Rabbeinu.
The Torah tells us only this about Moshe’s youth, “The boy grew up (va’yigdal hayeled) and she (Yocheved) brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh and he was a son to her. She called his name, Moshe, as she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.’ …It happened in those days that Moshe grew up (va’yigdal Moshe) and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens...” (Shemot 2:10-11)
Two times the Torah tells us that Moses “grew up”. We know the Torah never wastes nor minces words, never repeats anything for the mere sake of repetition, so why these two references in such close proximity to one another? Rashi suggests that the first va’yigdal refers to Moshe’s physical growth. That is, the boy grew up into an adult. The second va’yigdal is more critical and more powerful for it refers to Moshe’s position of responsibility.
This second va’yigdal is when Moshe becomes a “gadol”. Today, we reflexively associate “gadol” with one who is steeped in great learning and scholarship. To such a gadol we afford the respect for which he is worthy. However, Moshe attained this stature long before he was the Giver of the Torah. His worthiness was the result not of his scholarship but of his empathy.
Moshe came to recognize and identify with the pain and suffering of his fellow Jews.
To feel. To empathize. To act.
When young people are asked today, How will you know when you are “grown up”? they answer with superficial markers that note how their lives have changed. They are sore from not being active, they plan a day to recover from a vacation, they don’t sleep because of a baby in the house, they have a job. How profoundly they miss the mark of what it means to va’yigdal!
When we talk about growing, we focus not on the physical growth of a child to adulthood but the spiritual, psychological and emotional sense of what it means to va’yigdal. It is the reason that, at a baby’s bris, we pray, “…this little one, may he grow great (gadol).” We want him to realize his potential as a human being, just as Moshe did. Now, as an infant, “…you are small (katan)…” self-centered. You are totally dependent on others to exist. But in the future, you will be responsible not just for yourself, but hopefully for others as well. This is what we mean when we pray to “become gadol.”
While not determined by birth, to have a child realize his or her potential demands exceptional parenting. When Rav Moshe Feinstein probed deeper into Moshe’s sparse birth announcement, he reasoned that there may have been a good reason for omitting the names of Moshe’s parents in parashat Shemot but why does the Torah record that “Amram married his aunt Yocheved, and she bore him Aaron and Moshe” in Parashat Vaeira?
In this, the Torah speaks to the importance of parenting in raising a child to his or her potential. It takes no particular skill or praise-worthy ability to simply give birth. No more, in fact, than it takes for a child to va’yigdal physically. However, rearing a child, particularly in the midst of a galut, in a secular society and in challenging times, not only deserves but demands high praise and recognition.
Praise is due to the young person who matures and assumes his or her responsible place as a committed and caring member of an adult Jewish community. How many countless children with fine qualities and great potential are born into Jewish households every year? However, so very many of them never develop and blossom Jewishly. Their gifts and potential is lost, consumed by alien cultures. It is only by having parents who nurture and guide them that children and young people realize their gifts and potential. As it is written in parashat Vaeira , “vayigdal Moshe…” – Moshe grew in both stature and greatness. Rashi explains that it is at this point, finally, that recognition is due to his parents. Not at birth, but now when, as a man, he has realized his potential.
In Hilchot Teshuva, Rambam teaches that it is not predetermined for anyone to be born either righteous or wicked. Rather, free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn towards the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way, and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so. Everyone, every newborn has the potential to become a mentsch; special, kind, generous and sensitive. But it takes adults – parents, grandparents, extended family, teachers – to nurture that child and potential. Rambam concludes that, Every human being may become righteous like Moshe our teacher.
And when they do; when they become the “Moshes” they are meant to be, then their parents’ names will be proclaimed – with pride, satisfaction and much-deserved recognition.