“The Making of a Concerned Jewish Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The story of Joseph has come to a conclusion, and with the arrival of the children of Jacob in Egypt, G-d’s prediction to Abraham (Genesis 15) of exile, slavery, and persecution has begun. In this week’s parasha, Shemot, which begins the book of Exodus, the Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, tells us that Pharaoh hears from his diviners and soothsayers that a Hebrew male child will soon be born who will redeem the Israelites from slavery and destroy Egypt.

The Egyptian soothsayers also inform Pharaoh that the Hebrew savior’s downfall will be through water. Determined to save Egypt, Pharaoh decrees in Exodus 1:22: “Kol ben hayee’lod ha’y’orah tash’lichoohoo,” Every male child that is born, shall be cast into the river! Notice the interesting wording of the decree! Typical of virulent anti-Semites, the paranoid Pharaoh decrees that “every male child”–even Egyptian male children(!), shall be thrown into the river.

In order to save the infant Moses, his mother places him in a reed basket in the river as his sister stands by to see what will happen to him. Pharaoh’s daughter (the Midrash tells us that her name is Bithya), who is bathing in the river, finds the child and rescues him. Seeking a nursemaid for the child, she unwittingly delivers him to the child’s sister, Miriam, who gives him to his mother, Yocheved, to care for him until he is weaned.

Who is this child Moses, and how does he merit to become the savior of Israel? For insight into these questions, we might approach Steven Spielberg, and question him regarding his rendition of the “Prince of Egypt.” I suspect, however, that we would do far better by investigating our traditional Jewish sources.

The Midrash says that when Moses was about two years old, he was sitting on his adoptive mother, Bithya’s lap, next to Pharaoh, his adoptive grandfather. Attracted by Pharaoh’s glimmering crown, Moses the child reaches up, removes the crown from Pharaoh’s head, and places it on his own head. The Midrash says that one of Pharaoh’s court advisors, Bilaam (the same Bilaam who eventually tries unsuccessfully to curse the Jews), cries out that the child’s actions prove that he is determined to destroy the Egyptian monarchy and that the child must be put to death. Bilaam suggests that the Egyptian wise men be consulted to render judgment. Says the Midrash, the angel Gabriel, disguised as an Egyptian soothsayer (other versions maintain that it was Jethro), suggests that the child be tested by putting both a beautiful onyx stone and a hot coal in front of the child. If the child chooses the onyx stone, it would indicate for certain that the child wishes to usurp the royal throne.

While the child naturally is attracted to the glimmering stone, the angel Gabriel redirects the child’s hand to the coal, singeing Moses’ fingers. The child instinctively places the coal to his mouth, burning his lips, which accounts for Moses becoming a stutterer and slow of speech.

The Torah informs us that when Moses eventually flees from Egypt to Midian, he becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. The Midrash relates that G-d sees how lovingly Moses tends to the sheep, especially one little sheep who runs away to fetch water. The Almighty consequently chooses the kindhearted Moses to be the shepherd of His flock, Israel.

These are Midrashim, legends, regarding Moses, but what does the actual Torah text tell us about Moses?

The Torah tells us in Exodus 2:11: “Va’yigdal Moshe,” that when Moses was grown he went out to his brethren, “va’yaar et sivlotam,” and he sees their burden. This young man, raised as an Egyptian prince, nevertheless feels the pain of his Hebrew brothers as his own. Moses encounters an Egyptian smiting a Jew–not for laziness or neglect of his work, for no other reason but that he was a Hebrew. When Moses concludes that no one else will intervene to save the Hebrew from certain death, Moses himself smites the Egyptian.

Two other incidents involving Moses’ active intervention are recorded in the Torah. First, Moses witnesses a violent quarrel between two Jews, and intervenes. Then, when he arrives in Midian, Moses rescues the daughters of Jethro, who are unfairly chased away from the well by the Midianite shepherds. We see that in the original instance, Moses intervenes in a clash between a Jew and a non-Jew. In the second instance, in a fight between two Jews, and in the third instance, in a quarrel between two non-Jews. In each instance, Moses champions the cause of justice.

Where did Moses develop this exalted sense of justice, which seems so ingrained and natural? Perhaps we can say that it comes from his limited, but intense training during his formative years, when he was nursed by his mother and cared for by his sister. As the Catholic Church is want to say (V.I. Lenin, the communist leader expressed a similar principle), “Give me the child for the first five years, and you can have him for the rest of his life.” Those first, formative years that Moses spent with his biological family were most important, and the values instilled in the child during that period remain ingrained in the child’s persona.

Or perhaps there’s another source, an unexpected and often unacknowledged source of Moses’s exalted ethical sense. Could it be that Moses received his training from the Egyptian princess, Bithya? Was she the secret source of his ethical rearing and learning? Some Midrashim actually suggest that eventually Bithya joins the Jewish people, and marries the legendary Kalev ben Yephuneh, who together with Joshua were the only two scouts who returned from Canaan with a positive report. Is the Torah, perhaps, giving us a first glimpse of people, non-Jewish people, who would later be known as Chasiday oomot olam, the righteous gentiles, who would risk their lives in order to save Jews throughout Jewish history and were particularly helpful during the Holocaust?! Is that perhaps why Pharaoh’s daughter is named Bithya, Batya–the daughter of G-d?

Perhaps tradition is purposely ambiguous on this question, because both possibilities are correct! Moses obviously received his rearing from his mother and his sister as a young child, but also from Bithya. And both of these experiences prove vital. Surely, this is something for all of us to ponder.

May you be blessed.