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Moses the Man

By Avi Lazerson

Few people have influenced the world as much as Moses, yet very little is known of the man himself. Known as the "lawgiver", he was chosen for a very lofty mission, to lead the Jews out of the land of Egypt and to give them the Torah, and their national destiny.

What was Moses' merit that he was able to speak to G-d at any time, unlike most prophets who were called by G-d to become a vehicle for divine revelation? Was Moses' being supernatural or did he just possess superhuman qualities or was he just a "victim of circumstances" – being in the right place at the right time? Can we learn from his life and personality proper conduct, or was his life and being on a level vastly different from ours?

Upon examination we see that his lineage was most impressive. His father was Amram, the grandson of Levi, one of the recognized leaders of that generation. His mother was Yocheved, one of the midwifes that risked their lives to bring Jewish children into the world, who ignored Pharaoh's orders to kill each boy upon birth. She was Amram's aunt and a daughter of Levi, which made Moses a grandson to Levi on his mother's side and a great-grandson on his father's side.

The importance of being related to Levi is that it was the tribe of Levi that did not fall into the trap of slavery. During the period in which the Jews were slaves to the Egyptians, the rabbis teach us, the tribe of Levi spent their time studying the (then) Jewish tradition and the will of G-d.

According to Jewish tradition, Moses' 'real' name, the name given to him at birth by his parents was Tov, which means 'good'. His parents saw in him a specialness that radiated and therefore gave him this special name. The rabbis tell us that the shechina, the holy spirit of G-d, was with Moses from the time that he was an infant.

At the tender age of three months, his parents were forced to abandon him to avoid the Egyptians finding him and killing him. He was sent afloat in a small basket on the Nile which coincided with the time that the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the river. After Moses' being discovered, Pharaoh's daughter took him to the palace and raised him as her own. She employed a Hebrew woman to nurse him who was none other thatn his mother.

According to the Midrash, Pharaoh's daughter was actually going down to immerse herself in the Nile to purify herself from the impurity of idolatry. She eventually converted to being Jewish and subsequently left Egypt together with the Jewish nation. She married Calev, one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to report on the land of Israel. Calev and Joshua are to be remembered as opposing the ten spies who propagate an evil account of the land of Israel. Calev and Joshua told of the goodness of the land.

Moses grew up in the palace of the greatest ruler of the world at that time. He was adopted and sponsored by the daughter of Pharaoh. He therefore had every available benefit and opportunity for education and luxury that any person could enjoy. Yet we see a most remarkable event happen.

One day as Moses was out walking, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. Now we must recall that in those times, slavery was legal. Beating a slave was endorsed by law, especially since Jewish slaves were given to degradation as a government policy.

The rabbis differ as to the age of Moses at that time. Some say he was twenty years old; others say he was forty. In either case, what Moses did was not to be expected by an average person in such circumstances. Recall that Moses could receive every luxury and delight for his mere asking. Instead of thinking of his own benefit, Moses killed this Egyptian taskmaster and buried the body in the sand.

There is actually a disagreement if Moses used a blunt instrument to kill him or, as is commonly accepted, he utilized the power of the name of G-d to kill him, harnessing supernatural powers. The difference between the two versions is important, since the secrets of the divine name were only learnt from teacher to pupil; it would indicate that Moses had access to Jewish learning and tradition in the palace of Pharaoh.

In either case, Moses was willing to contravene the existing legalities and actually kill another man. According to the Midrash, this Egyptian taskmaster had snuck into the Jew's house and under the cover of darkness had sexual relations with his wife. When the husband discovered this, the Egyptian utilized his position and legal status to beat the Jew.

The next day as Moses went out, he saw two Jews fighting. While trying to stop one from beating the other, the Jew asked him if he would kill him also as he had killed the Egyptian. This worried Moses since he knew now that his murder was widely known. Shortly thereafter, the murder was reported to the authorities and Moses became a hunted man.

Moses now was forced to flee from the palace and hide like a wanted killer with a bounty on his head. This caused Moses to flee to Midian, a desert community far from the reaches of Pharaoh. It was said that the fact that the Jews spoke between themselves about his killing the Egyptian taskmaster bothered him very much. He felt that since they talked freely about it would cause G-d to not redeem them.

In Midian, he like his forefathers congregated at a well. There he again risked his life to aid the daughters of the former High Priest of Midian to obtain water for their flocks. After displaying such deeds of heroism, the former High Priest, Yethro, invited him to join them in there home where he gave Moses his daughter Tzippora for a wife. Here in the desert of Midian Moses tended Yethro's flock. Here was born Moses' son Eliezer.

It was here in the desert that Moses encountered the famed "burning bush" the bush that burnt but was not consumed. Seeing such a strange sight, Moses crept forward to see why the thorn bush was not consumed by the fire. As he came closer G-d called to him to announce that it was time for the beginning of his divine calling.

The rabbis have explained that the burning bush represented the lowly Jewish people, who although were in low and destitute straights, would not be consumed by the fire. It was a matter of G-d's providence that would protect them.

It is interesting to note that Moses did not circumcise his son. This is very strange especially in light of the ancient Hebrew tradition from the time of Abraham that all boys were to be circumcised. Because his parents had circumcised him, he was quickly identified as a Jewish child. Yet the rabbis tell us that he did not ignore circumcision but rather he postponed it in order to leave on his divine mission with out delay. It seems that Moses was aware of his special calling.

G-d wanted Moses to go to Egypt and be the spokesman for G-d to speak to Pharaoh. Moses declined the honor differing to his older brother Aaron. The rabbis tell us that by this act of refusing G-d's offer, his own son Eliezer who was destined to be the High Priest would be replaced by Aaron's sons.

Moses declination was too much and angered G-d enough to mete out a punishment to Moses. His hand turned leprous.

* * * * *

As we look back and analyze Moses' life we see two themes that run concurrently in his life. One is that Moses was divinely selected to be the leader of the Jewish people. Because of this Moses possessed a special character.

However, we see also that Moses had to prove his worth. He had to stand up against injustice even at the expense of his own comforts. He had to show that he was willing to sacrifice all of the luxury that he had possessed to save a poor down trodden Jew. The same is true when he risked his life to defend the daughters of Yethro. He was not just willing to risk a personal loss for the sake of others; he actually had to experience this loss on a very real level.

That Moses was divinely selected was shown by the fact that he came from the finest lineage, that the basket in which he was placed "happened" to reach the arms of the daughter of Pharaoh, who "happened" to choose that time to abandon idolatry. It just happened that his sister was there at the shore to help Pharaoh's daughter and was selected to bring a Jewish wet-nurse to nurse the new found child. The wet-nurse turned out to be none other than his own mother.

In addition, we see that Moses had to prove himself. It was not enough to rely on G-d's predestination to achieve that level of prophecy that Moses was to reach. Moses had to show that he was willing to give up his life of luxury and wealth to save a Jewish person. He had to show that this love of justice extended even to the daughters of Yethro who were being discriminated against when they tried to draw water from the communal well.

Moses possessed humility that surpassed that of all men. His concept of himself was not that of and independent being, but rather that of being a servant of G-d. His life was dedicated to others.

Perhaps his life and character was too lofty for us to emulate, but we can learn that putting others' needs before our own, even to the point of great loss is the hall-mark of greatness.

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