THE MAKING OF MOSES
What was it about Moses?
The greatest of the prophets, the leader of a revolution, and – in my opinion – the most fascinating character in the Bible.
This week, we begin the Book of Exodus, and from here on out, Moses will be our guide. We will follow him from his precarious beginnings until his death, the final scene in the Torah. The “greatest story ever told,” the story which defines the Jewish people, is, in many ways, the story of Moses.
So why Moses? Why was he chosen to be the great hero of our tale, and remembered lovingly forever after as “Moses, Our Teacher”? In many ways, he was the unlikeliest of candidates. He was, by his own description, “not a man of words” (a phrase which many have understood to indicate a speech impediment). He never wanted the job to begin with, and tried desperately to refuse it. And he spends much of the drama brooding and grumbling, lamenting his unbearable task, and even asking at one point, “just kill me already.” (Numbers 11:15)
And yet God seems certain that this is the one. For hundreds of years, the Israelites have been suffering in Egypt, with no help in sight, and then suddenly Moses is born and – voila – God finally appears. It is as if Redemption itself has been waiting for the arrival of this one boy. What was it about Moses?
Perhaps he was just born special. Rashi tells us that at the moment of his birth, “the whole house filled with light.”He isn’t just plucking this lovely image out of nowhere; he’s picking up on the very particular language the Torah uses, when his Yocheved gives birth:
She saw him, that he was good. (Exodus 2:2)
This very familiar language is echoing the story of Creation, when God first creates light:
And God saw the light, that it was good. (Genesis 1:4)
So Moses is like a new world being created, the harbinger of a whole new beginning. Moses is the light that emerges from total darkness. He has been fashioned by God for just this purpose. Even Pharaoh’s astrologers, the midrash tells us, foresee the coming of a redeemer, which is why they advise that all Israelite boys be killed.(Exodus Rabbah 1:18)
It is Moses they see in the stars. Moses is the chosen one.
Or, perhaps, the secret of Moses’ success isn’t nature, but nurture. The most striking feature of Moses’ early biography is that he is not just rescued, but rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and taken to live in the royal palace. This Hebrew boy, who will one day lead his people to freedom, grows up – as the movie puts it – “the Prince of Egypt.”
This, then, is the key to Moses: he has a dual identity, and so he knows better than anyone how to communicate with both Israelites and Egyptians, and how the Pharaoh operates. He is the perfect go-between, for he has been unwittingly training in diplomacy his entire life. Sure, maybe Moses was a special boy, but it was his unique positioning, above all, that prepared him for the job ahead.
Perhaps there is some truth to both of these explanations. But if we look carefully at the moment that Moses is actually tapped by God, we find in the narrative one other detail that suggests that neither Moses’ divine birth nor his royal upbringing was enough to make Moses into the great savior of Israel. There was one more test he had to pass.
We usually think of God simply appearing to Moses at the Burning Bush and announcing the redemption. But that’s not exactly the way it happened.
It at is first only an angel of God - a secondary representative - who appears in the form of a bush on fire, but not burning up. A strange sight, to be sure. But that’s it. No announcement. No revelation. No dialogue at all.
And then, Moses makes a move:
Moses said, “I must turn, to look at this marvelous sight. What doesn’t the bush burn up.” (Exod. 3:3)
Then - and only then - does God himself appear and engage Moses. And the language in the next verse is very precise about it:
When the Lord saw that he had turned to look, God called out to him from the bush: “Moses! Moses!” And he answered, “I am here.” (Exod. 3:4)
It is only when God sees that Moses has turned to Him that He reveals Himself. And in case we didn’t pick it up in the Torah itself, the midrash highlights this moment for us:
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said: he turned his face and looked… and when God saw that Moses looked at Him, He said, “This is the one who is fit to lead Israel.” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)
That was the qualifying attribute: the fact that Moses turned, and looked, and searched for something that was at first only vaguely there. So Moses’ destiny wasn’t a sure thing - it was waiting to be seen. Before God would seek out Moses, Moses had to seek out God.
That’s one theory. There is, however, a second opinion in the midrash that bears mentioning:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: What does it mean that he ‘turned to look’? God saw that he turned and was outraged when he saw the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Therefore he was fit to be their leader.
Rabbi Yitzchak reads the text more metaphorically. Moses “turned” from his own life to look back at the place he came from, and remembered the pain of his brethren, and could not bear it. And this was the quality that made Moses into a leader: his empathy. Certainly Moses had the talent and the training to do the job - but what tipped the scale for God was that he had the heart.
In either of these rabbinic interpretations, the critical thing is that Moses turned. Without that turn, there would be no Moses as we know him. Without that little turn of the head, there could be no redemption.
As fragile as this answer is, there is something reassuring in it. Because it means that we can all be Moses. We do not have to be born under a good sign. We do not have to be raised in a palace.
We only have to seek out God. And though He may be obscured, we will continue to search. Out in the wilderness, somewhere among the bushes and shrubs, we will find Him.
We only have to open ourselves to human suffering. To feel outraged by injustice, agonized by the pain of our people, and called to action. And we will be shown the way forward.
We only have to turn and look. And then redemption is at hand.