“Moses–The Mysterious Early Years”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the Torah reports that Moses, the Jewish child who was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace, grew up identifying with his Jewish brothers.

In Exodus 2:11, scripture records, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , And it happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens.

The Torah narrative itself tells little about Moses’ formative years. All we know is that he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in the water, given over to his biological mother for several years until he was weaned, and then returned to Pharaoh’s palace. There is a difference of opinion among the rabbis of the Midrash as to whether Moses was twenty or forty years old when he finally went out to look at the burdens of his brothers.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov the extraordinary commentator and compiler, fills in many of the details of Moses’ life by gathering Midrashim from many sources, reconciling them and reconstructing the early years of the life of Moses.

Rabbi Kitov reports that Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, where he was accorded great respect and honor, more than any other member of Pharaoh’s household. He was more handsome, more brilliant, and braver than anyone else in Egypt. As he was the reputed “son” of the daughter of Pharaoh, he was regarded as the natural heir to the throne. The few “insiders” who were aware of Moses’ Hebrew origins kept quiet about his background, for fear of offending Pharaoh and his daughter.

Even though Pharaoh at times had second thoughts about Moses, he eventually convinced himself that Moses was the biological child of his daughter and thus his own biological offspring. He therefore offered Moses the authority over whatever he wanted. Moses asked for free reign over the workers of Egypt.

Although Moses’ true intentions were to help the Hebrew slaves, no one but he and Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, knew the real reason for his desire to aid the slaves.

The true hero of this story is Bitya (see Shemot 5760-1999), Moses’ adopted mother who strongly encouraged her son to go out to meet his biological brothers, the Jews, and advised Moses to pay no heed to those Egyptians who insincerely honored and fawned over him.

In his role as the supervisor of the workers and slaves, Moses frequently visited the land of Goshen. It was in his role as an overseer that Moses introduced and developed advanced technology that was used by the Egyptian workers. He reportedly built ships and invented machinery for cutting and shaping stones. He developed new types of weapons for battle, and uncovered novel ways of drawing water from underground sources. All the while, Moses kept his distance from his Jewish brothers. Those Jews who knew of Moses’ Hebrew origins, resented his seeming indifference to their suffering. But Moses was hardly indifferent to his brothers’ travails.

Seeing how the Israelites suffered, Moses convinced Pharaoh that by refusing to give the Hebrew slaves a day off and forcing them to perform many forms of unnatural work, Pharaoh was actually damaging the economy of Egypt. Once persuaded that the economy of Egypt needed healthy, strong and well-motivated slaves, Pharaoh relieved the Israelites of work on Shabbat. Moses taught the slaves how to work smartly to avoid injury, and even tended to those who were hurt. No one suspected that Moses was doing this to help the Jews, since they all saw it as an effort to enhance Egypt’s economy.

G-d, however, saw in Moses’ great concern for his brothers, the making of a natural leader for His people. The Midrash says that because of the way that Moses reached out to his brothers, he was rewarded by Heaven with perfect health throughout his long life. He was also rewarded after his passing to be personally buried by the Al-mighty Himself (Deuteronomy 34).

Obviously, in the midst of the brutal enslavement and persecution of the Hebrew slaves, for a man like Moses to emerge from a Jewish family to lead the Children of Israel from slavery to freedom, many fortuitous elements had to come together. In light of the sparse information provided by the Torah, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s rich analysis and insights add much to our understanding of the man Moses and his emergence as the great leader of his people of Israel.

May you be blessed.