A Glimpse at Moshe’s Earliest Deeds

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Sponsored by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family 
in honor of the yahrtzeits of our esteemed grandparents: 
Neil Fredman (Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, 10 Tevet), 
Clara Fredman (Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, 15 Tevet), 
and Walter Rosenthal (Shimon ben Moshe, 16 Tevet).
In memory of Norma Blander on her Yahrzheit
Dedicated in memory of my grandmother,
Szore bat Simen Leib (Weinberger) z”l,
whose yahrzeit is on the 18th of Tevet.
May her soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.


By Virtue of Righteous Women[1]


R. Yehoshua ben Levi explains that women are obligated to partake in the four cups of wine on Pesach because “they, too, were part of that miracle” (Pesachim 108). Rashi and Rashbam (ad loc., contrary to the Tosafot) explain that women were not only among the entire nation that was redeemed through God’s miracle, but they in fact played an active role in it. These Rishonim base their teaching on the gemara in Sota, which teaches that “by virtue of righteous women of that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt.” R. Avira explains the righteousness of the women mainly in terms of their efforts to continue procreating even under the dire and seemingly hopeless conditions of Egyptian slavery:


R. Avira expounded: By virtue of the righteous women of that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fishes should enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fishes. They then set two pots upon the fire – one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field; they washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink, and engaged in intercourse with them among the sheepfolds, as it is written, “When you lie among the sheepfolds…” As a reward for “When you lie among the sheepfolds,” the Israelites merited the spoils of the Egyptians, as it is said, “As the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her pinions with yellow gold.” After the women had conceived, they returned to their homes, and when the time of childbirth arrived, they went and were delivered in the field beneath the apple-tree, as it is said, “Under the apple-tree I caused you to come forth…” The Holy One, blessed be He, sent down messengers from the high heavens to wash and straighten the limbs [of the newborn], in the same manner that a midwife straightens the limbs of the child, as it is said: “As for the day of your birth, in the day you were born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you…” And He provided them with two cakes, one of oil and one of honey, as it is written, “And he caused him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil…” When the Egyptians took note of them, they went to kill them, but a miracle occurred on their behalf, and they were swallowed into the ground. [The Egyptians] brought oxen and plowed over them, as it is written, “The plowers plowed upon my back…” And after they had departed, [the infants] broke through and emerged like the herbage of the field, as it is written, “I caused you to multiply as the bud of the field.” And when they grew up, they came in flocks to their homes, as it is written, “And you multiplied and grew and came with ornaments (be-adi adayim).” Do not read “be-adi adayim,” but rather “be-edrei adarim” (in flocks and droves). And when the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed at the Red Sea, they recognized Him first, as it is written, “This is my God and I will praise Him.” (Sota 11b)


However, it seems that it is possible to find reference to the efforts and righteousness of the women in the literal text itself.


At the time of the Exodus, God Himself redeemed Israel through an “arousal from Above” and in a direct manner: “I and not a messenger.” Nevertheless, if there is any human agent who might be awarded some recognition for his part in the redemption, it is surely Moshe – and Moshe was a man. What, then, was the part that the women played in Israel’s redemption?


A review of Moshe’s origins presents a very clear answer to our question. Moshe is born to a father and mother, and he has an older brother and an older sister. The person who hides him and saves him from the Egyptian death decree is his mother, not his father. Likewise, it is she who then makes a box and places the infant in it, among the reeds in the Nile – even though this construction would usually be undertaken by a man. The person who stands among the reeds to watch over this box, displaying resourcefulness and cunning in calling a wet-nurse “from the Hebrew women” at exactly the right moment, is Moshe’s sister, not his brother. The third figure who joins the scene and saves Moshe from Pharaoh’s decree is Pharaoh’s own daughter, who then raises Moshe inside Pharaoh’s palace. When Moshe returns to Egypt after his long exile in Midian, it is Tzippora who steps in and saves him a fourth time, saving him from the angel by circumcising her son.


Moshe indeed led us out of Egypt – but had it not been for the courage and presence of mind of the righteous women, what would have become of Moshe?


A review of the midrashic description of the conversation between Amram, the great sage of his generation, and Miriam, his daughter, helps to clarify the picture:


“And a man from the house of Levi went…” – Where did he go to? R. Yehuda bar Zevina said: He followed the advice of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the great sage of his generation. When he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son that is born you shall cast into the Nile,” he said, “We are exerting our efforts in vain!” He arose and divorced his wife, [whereupon] everyone arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, “Father, your decree is worse than that of Pharaoh! Pharaoh decreed only concerning the males, but you have decreed concerning both males and females. Pharaoh’s decree concerns only this world, but your decree concerns this world as well as the World to Come. Concerning the wicked Pharaoh, there is some doubt as to whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, but you are a righteous man – your decree will certainly be fulfilled, as it is written, ‘You shall decree a thing and it shall be established for you.’” So he arose and took back his wife, [whereupon] they all arose and took back their wives.


“And he took” – But should the verse not read instead, “and he took back [his wife]”? R. Yehuda bar Zevina said: He acted towards her as though he was marrying her for the first time. He seated her in a chariot, and Aharon and Miriam danced before her, and the ministering angels said, “A joyful mother of children.” (Sota 12a)


As in the stories about R. Akiva and his wife Rachel and about R. Meir and his wife Beruria, it was the women who displayed greater strength in their hope and faith in the time of crisis.



The Hebrew midwives


Let us now broaden our focus from the solitary Moshe to the entire nation of Israel. There are three lessons that we learn from the first two figures that are brought to life among the “names of Bnei Yisrael,” figures who stand out against the grey mass of slaves subjugated in Egypt – the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Pu’a.


The first lesson is the attributes of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, as reflected in the women’s actions – simple humanity and natural morality, a refusal to cooperate in infanticide. The second lesson concerns actual Torah. We learn from the midwives a lesson that has no other explicit source in the Torah –the law that the prohibition against bloodshed requires a person to give up his life rather than transgress it. Had it not been for Pharaoh’s remarkable naiveté when faced with the midwives’ cunning answer to him, had he ordered them to be executed for refusing to obey his order, who could have avenged them?


There is a third lesson that we learn from the midwives. These two women, belonging to the nation of Hebrew slaves, established – at great personal risk – the first underground movement known to us in this history of slaves rising up against their oppressors. According to Ibn Ezra, these two women led many other midwives to follow their example and join their proud struggle. This underground was not engaged in spying or blowing up bridges, but it entailed courage and valor that went beyond rescuing hostages under fire. It was a righteous women’s underground.


This is where the real war for freedom began – the redemption of the will of Am Yisrael, the redemption that conceived and bore the exodus and the physical redemption that could come only afterwards. All of this is represented on the individual level in the microcosm of Shifra, who is Yocheved (Sota 11b), who conceives and bears the redeemer of Israel.



Moshe’s First Appearances


Moshe’s first two public appearances are a continuation of his path. On the first day, Moshe – seeing that “there is no man” – strikes the Egyptian taskmaster, saving a Hebrew slave from his savage blows. This is the man whom God has chosen to represent His outstretched arm in the redemption of Israel. On the second day, Moshe expounds the principles of his teaching to the Hebrew man whom he encounters: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (2:13). Many generations will pass before the great successor of Moshe’s teachings – R. Akiva – established this as the main pillar of his own Torah teachings: “‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ – this is a great principle in the Torah” (Bereishit Rabba 24:7). This is the man whom God has chosen to give His Torah to Israel.


In Moshe of the second day we identify the son of Amram. Amram was the great scholar of his generation; he was a member of the tribe of Levi, who taught Torah to the rest of the nation even in Egypt. He was also a pious man who never sinned, dying only “on account of the [primordial] serpent” (Shabbat 55b). It was by the hand of Amram’s son that the Torah was given to Israel.


But Moshe of the first day, who fearlessly saves his fellow Jew from assault, thereby raising the banner of rebellion against Egyptian servitude, and who merits to redeem Israel – he is the son of Shifra-Yocheved.



The First Leader vs. The First King


Moshe and Shaul


A midrash in Shemot Rabba is one of the best-loved aggadot among Jewish children. It describes Moshe shepherding Yitro’s herds when a kid goat suddenly runs away. Moshe chases it until he comes to Mount Chorev, to the burning bush. The aggada teaches us about the responsibility that Moshe displayed towards his flock as a test for leadership of God’s own flock – Am Yisrael:


Our Rabbis taught: When Moshe Rabbenu, of blessed memory, was shepherding the flock of Yitro in the wilderness, a kid goat ran away. He chased after it until he came to a shaded spot. Having reached the spot, it came upon a pool of water and began to drink. When Moshe reached it, he said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You are exhausted!” He lifted it upon his shoulders and walked on. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: “Since you are compassionate in tending the flock of sheep, by your life – you will tend My flock, Israel.” This is the meaning of the verse, “Moshe was shepherding…” (Shemot Rabba 2:2)


How did Chazal arrive at this story? Perhaps in the background we might detect a comparison between Moshe, the first leader, who saves Israel from Egypt, and Shaul, the first king, who is meant to save Israel from the Pelishtim. In anticipation of Shaul’s appointment, we read:


Now God had revealed to Shemuel, a day before Shaul came, saying: Tomorrow at about this time I will send you a man out of the land of Binyamin, and you shall anoint him to be a prince over My people Israel, that he may save My people out of the hand of the Pelishtim, for I have looked upon My people, because their cry has come to Me.” (Shemuel I 9:15-16)


The language here echoes our that of our parasha: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt… And now, behold, the cry of Bnei Yisrael has come to Me.” Shaul’s great victory in his war agains the Pelishtim is likewise described in language reminiscent of the victory over Egypt: “And God saved Israel on that day, and the battle passed beyond Beit-Aven” (Shemuel I 14:23)


Shaul’s refusal to accept the monarchy owing to his youth and the lack of distinction of his father’s house likewise recalls Moshe’s refusal to take on his mission, humbly asking, “Who am I…?” In addition, the three signs that Shaul receives when he is anointed parallel the three signs that Moshe receives to show the people. The worthless people who scorn Shaul on the day of his coronation correspond to the officers of Bnei Yisrael (Datan and Aviram, according to the midrash), who scorn Moshe and Aharon when they emerge from their audience with Pharaoh.


Shaul is anointed “by accident,” while he is in pursuit of the donkeys that had escaped from the pack belonging to Kish, his father (Shemuel I 9). Chazal mold the appointment of Moshe in a similar way – he arrives at the burning bush in Chorev “by accident,” as he is running after a kid goat that has escaped from the flock belonging to Yitro, his father-in-law. Both leaders are told that the loss and distress of God’s flock – Am Yisrael – is a far more serious matter than the loss of any individual’s flock; they must turn their energies to the more important and urgent mission.



Leader vs. King


Having looked at the similarities between the first leader[2] and the first king, let us turn our attention to the differences between them.


1) Moshe is praised in the Torah for his humility: “Now the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than all the men that were upon the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). When it comes to Shaul, along with the praise for his humility, we also find criticism:


R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: For what reason was Shaul punished? Because he would forgo his honor, as it is written, “But some worthless fellows said, ‘How shall this man save us?...’ But he held his peace” (Shemuel I 10:27). (Yalkut Shimoni 117)


Apparently, a distinction must be drawn between humility that is rooted in in a person’s knowledge of his nothingness before his Creator, leading him to a sense that he has nothing that is rightfully his, and humility arising from a sense of “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (Shemuel I 15:24) – the meekness of a king who fears not the experience of standing before God, but rather the experience of standing before the people. The first type of humility is that of Moshe. This humility in no way reduces his sense of responsibility towards or leadership of the nation. The second is the humility of Shaul, which contains a measure of timidity and appeasement.


2) Both Moshe and Shaul are told that because of their misdeeds, their kingdom will be taken from them and given to someone else. Moshe asks of his own accord to pass his kingdom on to Yehoshua, and he himself confers his authority on Yehoshua with both hands, wholeheartedly. Shaul, from the moment he sees that his kingdom will pass to David, begins to persecute him and tries to place every possible obstacle before God’s plan, at any price.


Perhaps these two differences are really one and the same. Kingship is bestowed as a means. The aim, in both instances, was the salvation of Israel. For Moshe, leadership remained – until his last day – a means for the salvation of Israel. For Shaul, kingship was transformed from a means into an end in its own right, with all other aims taking a secondary place. This is the beginning of all sin.



Translated by Kaeren Fish






[1] This section was written and originally published in memory of three righteous women who lost their lives in terror attacks, each of them involved in teaching Torah: Sara Lisha, Miriam Amitai, and Rina Didovsky. May God avenge their blood and may their merit protect all of Israel.

[2] According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Ha-Mikdash 6:11), Moshe himself was the first king of Am Yisrael. See also Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, and others on Bereishit 36:31.