5767 - #13


Bereishit Rabbah 100:10 states that Moshe Rabbeinu, for forty years, was in the palace of Pharaoh, then lived forty years in Midian and then served forty years as the leader of the Jewish People. While there may be some controversy within the commentators regarding the exact length of each of these time periods, the basic message of this midrash seems to be straightforward. Moshe’s life can be divided into three parts. In the first part of his life, he lived in Egypt, basically in the world of the aristocracy. In the second part of his life, he lived what could possibly be described as the quiet and removed life of the shepherd. Finally, in the last third of his life, he lived the life for which he will always be remembered, the public life of the teacher, across all time and place, of klal Yisrael. Moshe’s life was not monolithic. It was marked by change, significant change at least twice. From the world of the aristocracy of Egypt, Moshe had to create a new world for himself in the grazing fields of Midian. And then from this world of the shepherd, Moshe had to again leave his surroundings to again adopt a completely different lifestyle, this time as the leader of Israel. Moshe’s path to becoming Moshe Rabbeinu, thus, was not a linear one; it involved transition. To gain a full perspective on Moshe Rabbeinu, it would thus seem worthwhile to further investigate these different periods within Moshe’s life.

            What was Moshe’s life like in the palace of Pharaoh? What was his life like as a shepherd in Midian? In considering a study of Moshe, it would seem to be important to look at the different stages of his life – and thereby learn who he was and how he became Moshe Rabbeinu. In truth, though, we have very little information, in the Torah text itself, of the first two stages of Moshe’s life. The various midrashic texts, of course, do offer a great deal more information about Moshe’s life, albeit that there are many contradictory presentations. What is a bit stranger, however, is that the two major points of transition within Moshe’s life – into his life in Midian and out of his life in Midian – are given more significance in the text than Moshe’s entire life in Midian. In response to the question of how the stages of Moshe’s life affected him, the Torah seems to be informing us that, while some information about Moshe’s life is important in understanding who Moshe was, knowledge of the two points of transition may be of greater significance.1

            Both of these points of transition are marked by events and, as such, it is these two events that demand our focus. Moshe’s transition from shepherd to leader, his transition from Midian back to Egypt, are marked by the extensive narrative of Shemot, Chapters 3 and 4 including what occurred at the burning bush. It is obvious that Moshe does not wish to make this transition but does that mean he is content with this life in Midian. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shemot 2:22 would seem to indicate otherwise. Moshe will always be a stranger in Midian; his heart is with his people in Egypt. The focus of Moshe’s reluctance to return to Egypt must have been his absolute desire not to be a leader – and this indeed is the focus of the text In Midian, he lived a private life, and that is all that we are told about Moshe. He had a family; he was a shepherd; and he felt like a stranger. What does this tell us about Moshe Rabbeinu? It is the transition point that informs us of the significance of Midian in Moshe’s being.

.           Yet this second transition point only provides part of the overall story. It is the first transition point that provides the other valuable information we need to understand Moshe. In Shemot 2:15-21, we are informed that Moshe fled from Egypt to Midian and that this transition to Midian was marked by specific events at a well. In the midrashic literature and the commentators, this brief story in the text is expanded upon, often in contradictory ways. There are the famous stories of how Moshe actually spent the majority of his years outside of Egypt as a leader in Kush.2 Rabbi Shimshon Hirsch also seems to imply that Moshe did not go directly to Midian upon leaving Egypt, albeit for different reasons. Bereishit Rabbah obviously describes Moshe as gong directly to Midian. Rashi focuses on the events at the well in terms of marriage and, perhaps, Moshe’s desire for family. Ramban focuses on the injustice that Moshe observed and his need to intervene. The text opens itself to all these possibilities but, it there is a focus, it is the simple focus that Moshe intervenes. Moshe fleeing from the consequences of his intervention in Egypt, Moshe who perhaps more than anything wishes to establish a private life of family in this new country, Moshe who wishes more than anything not to cause a stir in this new country and to be left alone, intervenes.3 What we are really introduced to at the well is a man of contradiction. Moshe does not wish to be a public person. This is reinforced in the story of the burning bush and Moshe’s reluctance to be a leader. Yet, Moshe cannot stand to see injustice. This occurred in Egypt and occurred again at the well. Perhaps Moshe’s great desire is for God to simply eradicate evil and leave Moshe alone. That was his request at the burning bush. The problem for Moshe is that this is not the alternative that he is given. To eradicate evil demands his involvement. A private life may be Moshe’s desire but the private person cannot fight injustice. A public life may be Moshe’s greatest feat but it is only the public person that can fight injustice. This is Moshe’s dilemma and ultimately describes the nature of the transitions in his life.

Moshe arrives in Midian wishing a private life. He fulfills his goal in that he marries and lives the life of a shepherd. But is that who he is? The event that marks his transition to Midian informs us otherwise. He is a private person who ultimately, even against his will, cannot be a private person. His caring for others, his inability to suffer injustice demands of him to be a public person. Even as he is about to enter a life of a private person, the reality of the drive that will take him into public life is identified. As long as the Jewish People suffer in Egypt, he is a stranger. He indeed is a private person. The most humble of individuals who ever lived has no desire for public life. Yet he is also driven towards public life for it is only in such a life that he can battle injustice. This is Moshe’s dilemma – a dilemma not of his mind but of his very being.

The transitions of Moshe’s life inform us of this contradiction of being that marked the very essence of Moshe. Leadership if often motivated by a desire to accomplish good. The cynical view of the politician -- that he/she is only interested in the glory of public life but is not really interested in the good that public life can achieve – is generally not the truth. Leaders usually are interested in accomplishing good. But, while motivated to accomplish this good, leaders also often do enjoy public life and the perks that may be associated with it. Generally it is the way of the world -- the way that God created us -- that the factors of our being intersect. This was not the case with Moshe. His private life was one of conflict. His public life was one of conflict. His life was not linear because his being was not linear. He did not want the lifestyle of the public person but he did want to eradicate evil and injustice which could only be done by a public person. His life was about this tension. The transition points within his life identify for us this tension – and the essence of this leader of Israel for the generations.

. 4.


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Of course, the midrashic literature on this subject cannot be ignored and it would be improper to draw conclusions on Moshe’s life solely from the text itself. Yet, there is a reason why certain information or events were mentioned in the Torah text itself and why others were not. This is my point here. In fact, the Torah presentation on the transition from Egypt to Midian is itself scarce and the midrashic literature is not only expansive but, as will be discussed, changes the very nature of the transition – yet the very fact that the text itself has a focus on this transition point is to be recognized. .

2 See the Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez on these verses.

3 A review of the various commentators on this verse will indicate how I arrived at this description of the event at the well.


Nishma, 2007.


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