The Missing Years

  • Rav Yair Kahn






Dedicated in memory of Gertrude and Samuel Spiegel z”l
by Michael and Patti Steinmetz



Dedicated in memory of my grandmother, Szore bath Simen Leib (Weinberger), 
whose yahrzeit is on the 18th of Tevet. 
May her soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.– from those who remember her.





The Missing Years

By Rav Yair Kahn



I.  An Ethiopian Monarch?


In Parashat Shemot, we are introduced to the main Biblical figure, Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah gives a detailed description of his birth, and we are informed of his childhood and youth, growing up in the palace of Pharaoh as an Egyptian, but nonetheless aware of his Hebraic roots. The Torah describes how he left the palace and encountered the suffering of his brethren and how he slayed the Egyptian taskmaster and was forced to flee. Moshe escapes to Midyan, saves Yitro’s daughters, and eventually marries Tzippora.  Then the Torah seems to press “fast-forward,” picking up the story only when Hashem appears to Moshe at the burning bush. At this point, Moshe is already eighty years old! Despite the detailed account of Moshe’s biography found in the Torah, there is a gap of around sixty years.


On the one hand, the Torah is neither history nor biography, and we shouldn’t be surprised by the absence of details that are not relevant to the Torah's narrative. Nevertheless, these missing years, some of which may have been formative, arouse more than curiosity. 


In fact, the missing years ignited the imagination of many. There is an entire genre of stories that tell of Moshe’s various adventures after he fled Egypt and before he arrived in Midyan. Some sources attribute the invention of the alphabet to Moshe; according to others, Moshe taught wisdom to the original Greek philosophers. The most famous source (Chronicles of Moshe), which found its way into the Yalkut Shimoni and is loosely based on Josephus' Antiquities, claims that Moshe initially ran away to Ethiopia, was appointed king, and helped suppress a revolution instigated by Bilaam.  According to this source, Moshe reigned in Ethiopia for forty years. 


These stories, albeit fascinating, appear totally fictional, grounded neither in Scripture nor in tradition. The Ibn Ezra already noted: “And regarding that which is written in the Chronicles of Moshe, don’t believe. As a rule I tell you, any book not written by the prophets or the sages and which is based on tradition, don’t trust” (Shemot 2;22; however, see the Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 12;1 as well as the Rashbam’s commentary there). It is not our intention to dwell on these imaginative, but unfounded stories. Perhaps if we explore the Torah itself, we may discover subtle hints that can help us fill in some of the blanks. 


II. Va-yo’el Moshe


Peshuto shel mikra (a straightforward literary reading of Scripture) indicates that Moshe arrived in Midyan immediately after escaping Egypt. In other words, during most of the missing sixty years, Moshe was in Midyan tending to Yitro’s flock. The Torah describes this period with a very enigmatic phrase: “Va-yo’el Moshe la-shevet et ha-ish” (2:21). The term “va-yo’el” is rarely used in Scripture and refers to agreement - Moshe agreed to dwell with the man (Yitro). Our sages (Nedarim 65a), playing on the root of "va-yo'el" –  interpreted this pasuk as referring to an “ala,” which means oath. Thus, Moshe took an oath that he would dwell with Yitro. However, the purpose and significance of this oath is not immediately clear. 


The oath is referred to in a midrash that at first glance seems incomprehensible. The Torah relates that Moshe called his son Gershom, “For I was a ger (alien) in eretz nochriya (a foreign land)” (18:3).  The Mekhilta comments:


R. Elazar the Modai said: “In eretz nochriya” – Moshe said: Since [all the people in] the entire world are idolaters, shall I worship before He that said “Let the world be”? For when Moshe asked Yitro for Tzippora’s hand in marriage, Yitro told him: Accept upon yourself that which I shall tell you and I shall give her to you as a wife. He said to him: What is it? He answered: The first son you have will be for avoda zara - from then on, for Hashem’s name. And he accepted it, as it is stated: “Va-yo’el Moshe” - the term ala refers only to an oath, as it says: “Va-yo’el Shaul…” Therefore, the heavenly angel came to kill Moshe immediately, and Tzippora took a flint and cut the foreskin of her son and the angel backed down.


What caused our sages to charge Moshe Rabbeinu with such a harsh and seemingly baseless accusation? How could they even entertain the possibility that Moshe, the father of all prophets, allowed his firstborn to worship avoda zara? Can one place so much weight on the term nochriya?


Let us take a closer look at the pesukim at the beginning of parashat Yitro that the Mekhilta is based on. 


And her [Tzippora’s] two children, the name of the first being Gershom, for he said, “I was a ger in a foreign land.” And the name of the other being Eliezer, for “the Lord of my father was my aid and he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.” (18:3-4).


There is something odd about these two names - they are out of sequence. First, Moshe was saved from the sword of Pharaoh; only later did he become a fugitive and foreigner in a strange land. Why didn’t Moshe commemorate his salvation with the birth of his eldest son?


Perhaps, the order of the names is reflective of different phases in Moshe’s life. Initially Moshe viewed himself as no more than a fugitive who managed to escape Egypt. He viewed the events that occurred in his flight from Egypt not as salvation, but as forced exile.  He had to flee Egypt so as not to be executed by Pharaoh. He was cut off, both from his Hebrew brethren as well as from Pharaoh's court. He was a nomad, without any roots. He was an alien in a foreign land. There was no indication that he would ever return.  Yitro agreed to adopt this rootless man, and in return, “Va-yo’el Moshe” – Moshe agreed to stay with Yitro. He had no other viable options. Of course, this doesn't suggest any lack of faith on Moshe's part. Nevertheless, for the next sixty years, Moshe was convinced that he had been cut off from the children of Israel and that there was no road back. 


However, one day everything changed. Moshe took his father in-law’s flock to graze on the mountainside of Chorev. According to tradition, Moshe followed a stray sheep and came upon an amazing sight, a bush on fire that was not devoured by the flames. The voice of God called out to him and announced: “I am the Lord of your father, the Lord of Avraham the Lord of Yitzchak and the Lord of Yaakov” (3:6). Hashem had seen all the injustice and suffering of Moshe’s brethren and the time for salvation had arrived.  Moreover, Moshe was elected to be sent to Egypt to free the Hebrews from bondage. All of a sudden, there was new direction to Moshe’s life. He would return to his brethren in Egypt, and he would be instrumental in freeing them from bondage and leading them to the Promised Land. After sixty years of estrangement, Moshe was once again firmly rooted. 


The revelation at Chorev not only gave Moshe a new direction for the future, but gave him a new perspective on the past as well. After all, it was at the burning bush that Moshe was introduced to the Lord of his fathers, “the Lord of Avraham the Lord of Yitzchak and the Lord of Yaakov." He could now look back at those same events which appeared previously as forced exile and realize that, in fact, it was the hand of God. It was only after the burning bush that Moshe could look back and say, “For the Lord of my father was my aid and he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh." 


III.  Gershom and Eliezer


Gershom and Eliezer were born in different phases of Moshe’s life.  Gershom was born when Moshe was totally cut off from his roots and his heritage. It was a period of despair, when Moshe was convinced that there was no path of return. It was a point in Moshe’s life when his dreams and aspirations exhausted themselves upon the plains of Midyan. It was a phase that can be summed up by two sentences: “I was an alien in a foreign land” and “Va-yo’el Moshe la-shevet et ha-ish."


We are informed of Moshe's second child only after the vision of the burning bush (see 4:20). Apparently, Eliezer was born after Hashem had revealed himself at Chorev. This was a period of mission and direction. It was a stage when Moshe was forced to reevaluate the events of his entire life from a new and exciting perspective. It was a point in Moshe’s life when he was made to understand that the strange circumstances of infancy and childhood were all part of a divine plan. It was a phase in which he was introduced to the Lord of his fathers and realized that it was He who had saved him from Pharaoh’s sword to in turn bring salvation to the children of Israel. 


The Torah tells a very enigmatic story that took place during Moshe's return to Egypt. They stopped at an inn, "and the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Tzippora took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his feet … So He let him alone" (4:24-26).  Many commentators explain that these pesukim are a reference to the circumcision of the newborn Eliezer.  However, according to the Mekhilta we quoted above, the reference is to the circumcision of Gershom (also see Pseudo Yonatan 4:24). In other words, Eliezer, who was born after the revelation at Chorev, was circumcised immediately. However, Gershom, who was born years before, at a stage in Moshe's life when he was totally cut off from the children of Israel, had not been circumcised until this point. 


After Parashat Yitro, there are no more explicit references to the children of Moshe. However, they do reappear later in Tanakh. In Sefer Shoftim, there is a vague reference to a Levite who served an idol as a priest in the house of Mikha, named Yehonatan son of Gershom son of Menashe (Shoftim 18:30). The nun of Menashe’s name is written as a small letter, suggesting it doesn't really belong. In other words, Yehonatan, who served as an idolatrous priest, was actually the son of Gershom and grandson of Moshe. There are a number of textual references that may support this connection. The most significant from our perspective is, "Va-yo'el ha-Levi la-shevet et ha-ish" (17:11), which mirrors the verse referring to Moshe's stay in Midyan and the birth of Gershom (see Shemot 2:21-22). The gemara in Bava Batra (109b) comments: "Is he [Gershom] the son of Menashe? He is the son of Moshe! … Rather, since acted in the way of Menashe [an idolatrous king of Yehuda], Scripture connected him to Menashe." (For more on Yehonatan ben Gershom, see Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:2).


There is a more explicit reference in I Divrei Ha-yamim: "The sons of Moshe: Gershom and Eliezer. The sons of Gershom: Shevuel the chief. And the sons of Eliezer were: Rechavia the chief. And Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rechavia were very many” (23:15-17). The gemara in Berakhot (7a) makes the following comment (See also Pseudo Yonatan on the verse in Divrei Ha-yamim).



R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Yossi: Every single word that came out of the mouth of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu is for good. Even if uttered conditionally, He will not go back on it. How do we know? From Moshe Rabbeinu, as it says: "Leave Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they." Even though Moshe pleaded and nullified the decree, nevertheless it [the word of Hashem] was fulfilled through his offspring, as it is stated, "The sons of Moshe: Gershom and Eliezer. The sons of Gershom: Shevuel the chief. And the sons of Eliezer were: Rechavia the chief. And Eliezer had no other sons; but the sons of Rechavia were very many." And R. Yosef taught: [Rechavia had] more than six hundred thousand… It says here “[The sons of Rechavia] were very many,” and it says there, “The children of Israel were fruitful and increased and multiplied."


We find a sharp contrast between the descendants of Gershom and those of Eliezer. While Yehonatan deteriorates towards idolatry, Rechavia thrives and prospers. Moreover, we find in the Pseudo Yonatan (I Divrei Ha-yamim 2:55) superlatives about the Torah and prophecy of the family of Rechavia. What led to this discrepancy? Perhaps it is connected to the diverse circumstances that began with their respective births. Each of Moshe's children had a distinct point of departure and travelled on a different trajectory, which led to divergent destinations and destinies. Of course, every person has free will to break the confines of surrounding influences. Nevertheless, those confines do exist, and if not broken, they may have a powerful effect. 


According to a literal reading of the Mekhilta, Moshe’s oath may have led to the corruption of Yehonatan.  On the other hand, perhaps, the Mekhilta is not to be taken as a reference to a literal oath, but rather to the reality in which Moshe lived during those sixty years of alienation. These were sixty years of being a stranger in a foreign land; sixty years of rootlessness, having no one to turn to but a priest of Midyan; sixty years of "Va-yo'el Moshe la-shevet et ha-ish," which eventually led to "Va-yo'el ha-Levi la-shevet et ha-ish."   


In summary, we suggested that the sixty missing years of Moshe's life was a dark period of total alienation from the children of Israel, with no hope of return. We tried to support this thesis through a nuanced reading of the Torah and a number of midrashic statements. Perhaps this is the reason that these years are not documented in the Torah. On the other hand, based on this thesis, Moshe's ability to turn around his entire life after the vision of the burning bush is an impressive testimony to the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of all prophets.