Parshat Shemot: Why Moshe?
Through text study, students analyze why Moshe was chosen to lead the Jewish people.
We often have the impression that Moshe was destined to become Moshe. He was born great and therefore rose to great heights. This idea is backed up by midrashim who teach that as a new-born baby, Moshe refused to suckle from non-Hebrew mothers (as their milk is not kosher) and Moshe got a lisp by the angel forcing him to choose the coal instead of the gold.
In this lesson we will see that while God was involved in the conditioning of Moshe (e.g. by ensuring he grew up in Pharaoh’s household), Moshe still had to prove himself to God by overcoming moral challenges. We will learn that Moshe grew up in an idol worshipping home, and was not recognizable as a Jew and knew little of his heritage. Nevertheless, God chose him because of his moral courage.
Seeing Moshe as an autonomous human being who chose the right path, gives us hope that we can accomplish the same. One does not have to be destined for greatness in order to achieve greatness. It is possible for all of us to achieve greatness if we make the right moral choices.
This lesson will mainly focus on the following texts, all found in Sefer Shemot: 2:1-22, 3:1, and 4:24-26. We will also examine 3:6 and 4:14. It is not necessary for the students to read the chapters 3 and 4 fully.
Note: This document was written with sources translated into English. All sources have been provided in Hebrew as an appendix at the end of the document. Teachers should also feel free to make any changes they feel necessary in order to enhance these documents.
Extension work for advanced students is available in the procedure.
The student will be able to describe:
1. The three episodes where Moshe is proactive in his youth.
2. Moshe’s awareness of his Jewish background.
3. Moshe’s commitment to his traditions.
The student will be able to:
1. Examine and analyze Biblical text.
2. Examine and analyze Rashi and midrash (extension work).
The student will be able to appreciate:
1. Moshe’s general moral courage, including his justice and care for others (i.e. not discriminating between Jew and non-Jew).
2. The importance of standing up for the oppressed.
3. The importance of moral courage in Judaism.
Resources & Equipment needed
Chumashim, paper, pens, copies of worksheets and appendix
1. Before you begin the lesson you may want to discuss why Moshe was raised in the royal household. The Ibn Ezra (see appendix) suggests that Moshe needed to learn leadership skills and Pharaoh’s household was the ideal place to gain those skills. It was also important for Moshe to grow up with a “free-man’s” mentality—that is, not as a slave. The Ibn Ezra also maintains that had Moshe grown up among Jews, i.e. slaves, he would not have gained their respect, as they would not have seen him as someone special.
2. Hand out worksheets and work through them.
Suggested Answer for Question One This question is a “do you think” question and therefore, any answer the students bring is fine as long as they have explained themselves adequately. It is unlikely that Moshe received a Jewish education as a child. Most likely, Moshe was taught Egyptian culture, history and religion. He probably dressed and behaved as an aristocratic Egyptian and was imbued with Egypt’s social customs. It is very likely that Moshe was a regular visitor (and worshipper) of Egyptian holy sites.
Suggested Answer for Question Two a) Moshe is described by Re’uel’s daughters as an Egyptian. It is probably because he wore Egyptian attire, spoke Egyptian and bore signs of Egyptian custom and culture. Moshe gives them no reason to assume that he is not an Egyptian, least of all a Hebrew national. b) Moshe marries a Midianite woman. He seems to have no connection to his Hebrew roots and if not for God’s intervention, may have been lost from the Jewish people for good. c) This is a very unclear episode. What is clear is that Moshe was so cut off from his roots that he did not even circumcise his son (we do not know which son). Even after God had commanded him to join his people and family, Moshe did not see any need to circumcise his son. It was Tzippora, Moshe’s wife, who finally circumcises him, after Moshe’s life was threatened.
Suggested Answer for Question Three You may want focus the students on the various verses (i.e. 2:7-9, 11, 3:6, 4:14). In 2:7-9, Miriam, Moshe’s sister, ensures that his mother suckles him. It is likely that Yocheved (Moshe’s mother) would have done her outmost to reveal his true identity to him. In chapter 2, verse 11, Moshe’s desire to see the suffering of the Hebrews is described. Twice in this verse, the Torah describes them as “his brothers” indicating that Moshe was aware of the fact. When God introduces Himself to Moshe in chapter 3, He does not inform Moshe of his roots. God talks to him in a manner to suggest that Moshe knew his origins. Finally, Moshe seems to even know that Aharon was his brother. Moshe may have received this information from his mother and sister, who looked after him in his youth.
Suggested Answer for Question Four This is another “what do you think” question. Moshe is an assimilated Jew. He is aware of his origins and feels emotionally attached to his people, but he has little to do with them and even less in common with them. He is culturally an Egyptian, marries out and does not pass on any of his heritage to his children. Therefore, it is strange that Moshe should be chosen to lead the Jewish people; he is not what we would consider to be “a good Jewish boy”. You may want to point that many Jewish leaders of the past century, such as Theodore Herzl, have had a similar education. In fact, it is for this reason that many religious groups rejected their authority.
Suggested Answer for Question Five We will now show that despite his lacking in Jewish heritage, Moshe had the moral qualities of a leader. God considered these values to be quintessential values that enabled Moshe to lead the Jewish people. Verses Moshe’s actions Nationalities of the characters Repercussions 2: 11-12 Moshe intervenes when he sees an Egyptian persecute a Hebrew. Hebrew against Egyptian Moshe’s unnecessary intervention forces him to kill the Egyptian. 2: 13-15 Moshe intervenes in a dispute between two Hebrews. Hebrew against Hebrew Moshe’s unnecessary intervention forces him to flee his home. 2: 16-18 Moshe stands up for persecuted girls and enables them to draw water from a well. Non-Hebrew against non-Hebrew Moshe’s unnecessary intervention leads to his introduction to Re’uel and his marriage.
Suggested Answer to Question Six a) In each case Moshe sees someone being unfairly treated and persecuted. b) Despite the fact that it would be simplest for Moshe to turn his head, after all, why should an aristocratic Egyptian be concerned for the welfare of slaves (in fact why did he feel the need to visit the city slums?), Moshe intervenes, risking everything he has. Even when twice previously he ended up in serious trouble, and he finds himself in a foreign land surrounded by unfriendly shepherds, Moshe cannot help but stand up for the persecuted daughters of Re’uel. The Torah shows us that Moshe is not discriminatory in who he defends. It would make sense that he intervenes when the fighting involves his brethren, the Jews, but even when he has no emotional attachment to the feud, Moshe cannot tolerate the injustice and intervenes on behalf of the oppressed parties. We may talk about the social problems that exist not too far from our own communities. We may hide in our own communities pretending that everything is fine, or we can be like Moshe and stray outside the comfort of our own suburbs and try to help the oppressed.
Suggested Answer for Question Seven Moshe was an assimilated Jew with little awareness of his Jewish heritage. He was imbued with moral courage and always acted with his conscience, despite the repercussions.
Suggested Answer for Question Eight It is now obvious why God chose Moshe and what God considers to be important in life. Too often we make judgments on people based on their level of observance, about praying with a minyan, observing Shabbat and kashrut laws, etc. Had we been choosing our own leader, we would have totally ignored Moshe. It is very important for the teacher not to underscore the importance of religion. Moshe circumcised his son and rediscovered his heritage. However, it is clear that we should not be judging people by their external religious behavior. Non-observant Jews should not be written off merely because of their lack of halakhic commitment, which, like Moshe, could be a result of their upbringing. Maybe we should be looking for moral courage while choosing our leaders. After all, it was Moshe’s moral courage that caught God’s eye. Note: You may want to discuss the secular commitment of the early Zionist leaders and explain that it is not a flaw that disqualified them from leadership.
3. The following question and answer was added for those teachers who may have more time to deal with the subject, or for advanced students who can cope with the extra work. The questions examine a Rashi and a midrash that deal with a textual problem in Chapter 4:1, immediately prior to God’s first communication with Moshe. Both sources attribute additional moral values to Moshe’s character that resulted in God choosing him. Ideally this question should be done before question 7.
Question: Rashi and the midrash add two further moral values to Moshe’s character. Using the table below explain the extra dimensions these commentaries add to Moshe’s character. Rashi on Shemot 3:1 Far away into the desert: To distance himself from theft, that (the sheep) would not graze in other people’s fields. Midrash Rabba on Shemot The rabbis say that when Moshe Rabbeinu of blessed memory, shepherded Yitro’s flock in the wilderness, a kid goat fled. He chased it until it came into a shelter. The kid was drinking from a pool of water in the shelter. When Moshe reached it he said: “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You must be tired.” He picked it up on his shoulders and carried it back. The Holy One blessed be He said: “You have mercy when shepherding the sheep of a mortal. By your life, you will shepherd My sheep, Israel, …” Source Moshe’s actions Moral value Rashi Midrash Rabba Suggested Answer It is worthwhile discussing Rashi and the Midrash Rabba’s problem with Moshe’s actions, i.e. why did he take his sheep “far away into the wilderness.” This verse is all the more important, as it is Moshe’s final action that precedes God’s first communication with him. Hence taking the sheep “far into the wilderness” was relevant as to why God chose him. It says something fundamental about his character. Rashi and the midrash add to further dimensions to Moshe’s moral courage. According to Rashi, Moshe takes his flock deep into the wilderness where the land was ownerless, so that his flock would not graze on other people’s property. Moshe shows respect for the property of others. The Midrash Rabba shows that Moshe shows care and consideration for the animal kingdom. Source Moshe’s actions Moral value Rashi Taking his flock deep into the wilderness to graze. Respect for the property of others. Midrash Rabba Chasing a kid and carrying it home. Respect for the animal kingdom