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Moshe's Religious Inclination Prior to God's Revelation

  • Rav Amnon Bazak




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.


In memory of our grandparents, whose yahrzeits fall this week:

Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen Fredman (10 Tevet)

Chaya bat Yitzchak David Fredman (15 Tevet)

Shimon ben Moshe Rosenthal (16 Tevet)

By their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,

Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family



Moshe's Religious Inclination Prior to God's Revelation

Rav Amnon Bazak



A.        Between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3


Many of the leaders of Am Yisrael are presented in Tanakh with no introduction that would explain why God chose them; we know nothing about them until the moment they become leaders. For example, the Torah tells us nothing about Avraham's personality prior to God's revelation to him, when He commands him, "Lekh lekha."[1] Similarly, in Sefer Shmuel, we are told nothing about David's life until the moment when he is anointed by Shmuel. In contrast, when it comes to Moshe, the Torah provides extensive descriptions of some events of his life prior to God's revelation. Chapter 2 of Sefer Shemot expresses two aspects of his personality, both of which are addressed by the commentators at length: his sense of national fraternity with his brethren – his identification with their suffering and his refusal to ignore an assault on their dignity; and his well-developed moral conscience, which leads him to help the weak whoever and wherever they may be – whether the situation involves "two Hebrew men fighting" or shepherds who are intimidating the daughters of Re'uel in Midian.


In this shiur, we will explore another significant aspect of Moshe's personality which was consolidated before God chose him: his religious consciousness. Throughout chapter 2, Moshe demonstrates his superior moral qualities, but we detect no religious motivation behind his actions. If there is any hint of the stirrings of such a consciousness, it is to be found in the few verses preceding God's revelation to him at the beginning of chapter 3:


(1) Moshe was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he led the flock beyond the wilderness (achar ha-midbar), and he came to the Mountain of God, to Chorev. (2) And an angel of God appeared to him in a flame of fire from within a bush, and he saw that behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. (3) And Moshe said, “Let me turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” (4) And when God saw that he had turned aside to see it, God called to him from within the bush, and He said, “Moshe, Moshe,” and he said, “I am here.”


What can we conclude from the only two verses (1, 3) that focus on Moshe that appear after the end of chapter 2 and before God reveals Himself at the burning bush?


B.        "This Shall be Your Sign"


First, we must consider the very fact of Moshe's presence at the Mountain of God, at Chorev. There is no question that he has undertaken a long journey, for he has traversed the entire wilderness in order to get there ("He led the flock beyond the wilderness"). Why did he venture so far? Rashi explains, "In order to distance himself from [any possibility of] theft, so that [the flocks] would not graze in fields belonging to others." However, there may be another explanation.


The key to understanding the matter seems to lie in the conversation between God and Moshe further on in the chapter. God reveals Himself to Moshe and entrusts him with a mission: "And now, go, and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and bring out My people, Bnei Yisrael, from Egypt" (verse 10). But Moshe is evasive:


(11) Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?"


God replies:


(12) And He said, “I shall be with you, and this shall be your sign that I have sent you: When you bring the nation out of Egypt, you will serve God upon this mountain."


The first part of God's response seems to make sense. Moshe wonders how, with his meager powers, he can approach Pharaoh and bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. God assures him that he will not be alone; God will be with him. But the continuation of God's assurance is most puzzling; the sign He gives Moshe to show that it is He Who is sending him is: "When you bring the nation out of Egypt, you will serve God upon this mountain." What does this mean? In what way is Mount Sinai/Chorev a sign? What sense does it make to offer a sign which will come about only in the future, long after Moshe has already gone to Pharaoh and brought the nation out of Egypt?


In many places in Tanakh, we find that a person who is hesitant or doubtful about something asks for or receives a sign, in the present, that serves to embolden or encourage him to perform some action in the future. For instance, the Torah warns us against false prophets, who may offer signs with the intent of inciting Bnei Yisrael to worship idolatry:


If there should arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign and the wonders come about, of which he spoke, saying, “Let us follow other gods which you have not known, and serve them…" (Devarim 13:2-3).


Clearly, the giving of the sign precedes the turning after other gods.


Gid'on, who harbored doubts as to whether it was God Who had appeared to him and whether He would be with him, asked for signs. For example, he asks of the angel who first appears to him: "If I have then found favor in Your eyes, perform some sign for me that it is You talking with me" (Shoftim 6:17). Concerning the future collapse of his dynasty, Eli is told: This will be your sign, which will come upon both of your sons, Chofni and Pinchas: on one day both of them will die" (Shmuel I 2:34). Yonatan son of Shaul and his attendant make a sign for themselves: "If they say thus, 'Come up to us,' then we shall go up, for God has given them into our hands, and that will be our sign" (Shmuel I 14:10). In all of these instances, as well as many others, the sign is given prior to the action, and the action is dependent upon the sign coming about.


All this serves only to deepen the puzzle. How does the fact that Bnei Yisrael will arrive at Mount Sinai at some point in the future serve as a sign for Moshe in the present?


Rashi suggests two interpretations. According to the first, the words, "And this shall be your sign that I have sent you" refer not to the rest of the verse ("when you bring the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain"), but rather to the continuation of God's speech to Moshe; the sign is the revelation at the burning bush itself:


"And this” – the vision which you saw at the bush – “is your sign that I have sent you” and that I am able to deliver you. Just as you have seen the bush fulfilling My mission and not being consumed, so you shall go on your mission and you shall not be harmed.


 According to this explanation, the continuation of the verse is not connected to the sign, but rather a response to the question of how Bnei Yisrael are deserving of being redeemed. The answer is: by virtue of the fact that they will receive the Torah at the revelation at Sinai. This interpretation is difficult to accept, mainly because the words "This shall be your sign" are not easily severed from the rest of the verse.[2]


The second interpretation that Rashi proposes does connect the words, "This shall be your sign…" to the continuation of the verse, but he interprets "this" as referring not to what God says next, but rather to Moshe's initial success, which will serve as the sign that later on, Bnei Yisrael will serve God at Mount Sinai:


"And this” – your success in your mission – will be your sign as to another promise which I give you: that when you [ultimately] bring them out of Egypt, you shall serve Me on this mountain, where you will receive Torah, and that is a permanent merit for Israel."[3]

The problem with this explanation is that it suggests that at this stage, Moshe has actually not yet received any sign.[4]


Perhaps we might suggest a different interpretation. According to our proposal, the sign has indeed been given, and its purpose is to encourage and embolden Moshe to set out on his mission – and its substance is the very fact of Moshe's arrival at Mount Chorev. We recall that in order to get there, he had to undertake a long journey. Over the course of it, Moshe must have asked himself, “Where am I going? What is this feeling that drives me to walk so far, to cross the wilderness and to approach that mountain?” We may assume that Moshe was not able to answer these questions for himself, but now God reveals the truth to him: You were drawn to this mountain because at this mountain there is a representation of God's Presence in the world: "When you bring the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain!" Your natural attraction to "this mountain" was an expression of your longing for and connection to God and for the place that represents the revelation of His Presence.


Thus, the text draws a parallel between Moshe and someone else who was likewise drawn, while still surrounded by a pagan society, to God's portion of the world, without having been commanded in any way. Terach, Avraham's father, found himself setting off on a journey to the land upon which God's eyes always rest:


Terach took Avraham his son, and Lot, son of Haran, his son's son; and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, wife of Avraham, his son; and they set off with them from Ur Kasdim, to journey to the land of Canaan. (Bereishit 11:31)


We have already discussed in our shiur on Parashat Lekh-Lekha how this attraction was the basis of our assumption that Avraham, too, had reached a certain spiritual level even before God appeared to him. Terach’s attraction to God's portion apparently was not sufficiently strong, such that it was obstructed mid-way: "And they came to Charan, and they dwelled there" (Bereishit 11:31). Moshe, in contrast, ultimately reaches God's mountain, despite the lengthy journey involved.


C.        "And When God Saw that He Had Turned Aside to see"


Let us now turn our attention to the second verse that describes Moshe prior to the revelation. Moshe is confronted with the wondrous sight of a bush that is burning with fire but is not consumed. The text records his response as follows:


Moshe said, “Let me turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." (Shemot 3:3)


This expression also says something about Moshe's religious consciousness. His alert eye and sensitive heart lead him to understand that what faces him is a "great sight" that deviates from the laws of nature. It is quite possible that the phenomenon of this burning bush had not originated just now, and that other shepherds had already passed it by. But none of them would have stopped to examine the phenomenon more closely; they would not have taken note that the bush was burning beyond the degree to which it naturally should, and nevertheless was not consumed. None of them would have understood that this was a "great sight." Moshe was the first who did not suffice with a superficial glance, but sought to turn aside in order to examine the situation from close up.


This explains the textual formulation of God's response:


When God saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him from within the bush, and He said, “Moshe, Moshe..." (verse 4)


In other words, had Moshe not turned aside to look, God would not have revealed Himself to him. In his taking an interest and turning to examine the phenomenon, he demonstrated that aside from his powerful moral sensibilities, Moshe also possessed a religious consciousness that took note of that which lies beyond the natural world.


D.        The Priest of Midian


Now we must ask how this religious consciousness developed. Of course, we may say that it was Moshe's natural inclination, which was aroused only when he began spending time in the wilderness, becoming geographically closer to the place where God's glory was revealed. However, there may also be more significant background, discernible in the previous chapter, which describes his early biography. Chapter 2 tells us that Moshe lived in three different homes: His parents' home, the home of Pharaoh's daughter, and the home of Re'uel. It seems that at each of these stations, he absorbed values that were expressed in his later actions.


In his parents' home, where Moshe spent only the very earliest period of infancy, Moshe imbibed his mother's milk along with the national bond with his brethren, Bnei Yisrael. The story of his own concealment and protection by the members of his family was, for him, a model demonstrating the risks that must be undertaken on behalf of his people. Just as the description of Miriam's devoted protection emphasizes twice the fraternal relations between them – "His sister (achoto) stationed herself at a distance, to see what would happen with him… And his sister (achoto) said to Pharaoh's daughter, ‘Shall I go and call a nursemaid for you, to nurse the child for you…’" (2:4,7), so the fraternal relationship is repeated twice when Moshe seeks to deliver the Hebrew man from the Egyptian who is beating him: "And it happened in those days, when Moshe grew up, that he went out to his brethren (echav) and he observed their affliction, and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man of his brethren (me-echav)" (verse 11). As we know, sensitivity to the national plight and devotion to Bnei Yisrael went on to become fundamental components of Moshe's leadership.


Pharaoh's daughter, too, stands out prominently as a moral figure, but in her case the emphasis is on universal morality, such that she feels compassion for a child belonging to the people which her father is trying to eradicate: "She had compassion on him and she said, 'This is one of the Hebrews' children’" (2:6). In her home, it seems, Moshe learned that moral behavior must extend to people who are not of one's own nation – and he acted accordingly, in intervening on behalf of Re'uel's daughters and delivering them from the shepherds who sought to chase them off.[5]


In the wake of this assistance to the women, Moshe meets their father, who becomes his father-in-law. Re'uel is presented in chapter 2 both as a moral figure – "He said to his daughters, 'But where is he? Why, then, did you abandon the man? Call him, that he may eat bread’" (2:20) – and as a religious figure – he is the "priest of Midian." Later on, his lofty spiritual level is revealed when he hears of the miracles that accompanied the Exodus from Egypt and deduces God's greatness:


And Yitro said: "Blessed is God, who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh; Who delivered the nation from under the hand of Egypt. Now I know that God is great that all the gods, indeed, for their having dealt proudly with them." (Shemot 18:10-11)


It is not for nothing that Chazal teach:


Yitro knew what he was talking about, for he had passed through every house of idolatrous worship in the world and had found nothing meaningful in them; thereafter, he came and was converted. In his case, then, it is appropriate to say, “Now I know."(Devarim Rabba 1:5)


Seemingly, then, just as the previous homes in which Moshe had grown up had bequeathed him national and moral sensitivity, Yitro's home played its own role in molding his personality and bestowed upon him his religious consciousness. This consciousness prepared Moshe to be sensitive to sights that are not part of everyday reality, to seek God, and to be drawn to the place of His Presence.


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] In our shiur on Parashat Lekh-Lekha, we saw that the root of God's choice of Avraham is to be found in the journey undertaken by Terach and his family towards the land of Canaan, as we will discuss below. Still, the Torah is focused there on Terach, and not on Avraham himself.

[2]  The expression "This shall be your sign" appears in three other places in Tanakh, and in each instance the sign comes about immediately: "This shall be your sign; it shall befall both of your sons, Chofni and Pinchas, on the same day both shall die" (Shmuel I 2:34); "And this shall be your sign: You shall eat this year what grows of itself, and in the second year that which arises of the same, and in the third year – sow, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit" (Melakhim II 19:29); "And this shall be your sign from God, that God will do this thing which He has spoken: Behold, I will cause the shadow of the dial, which has gone down on the sun-dial of Achaz, to move back ten degrees” (Yeshayahu 38:7)

[3] Rashi brings another verse that can be interpreted in the same manner from the prophecy concerning the demise of Sancheriv (the second example in the previous note): "And we find a similar linguistic phenomenon in the verse, 'And this shall be your sign: Eat this year that which grows of itself…' – the fall of Sancheriv shall be your sign concerning another promise: that I shall cause your land, which is barren of fruit, to give forth abundant vegetation that grows of itself."

[4]  As the Ramban notes: Many interpretations have been suggested for this verse." See his commentary and that of Ibn Ezra; each suggests some alternate possibilities.

[5]  This line of thinking has its foundation in the commentary of Ibn Ezra (2:3), who writes: "God's thoughts are deep; who can grasp His counsel? He alone plans outcomes. Perhaps God planned it that Moshe would grow up in the royal household, so that his consciousness would be on a superior, royal level, and not lowly and accustomed to slavery. Indeed, he kills the Egyptian because the latter is being tyrannical. And he saves the daughters of Midian from the shepherds because they, too, were being tyrannical in watering the flocks from the water that they drew."