Parashat Vaera: Moshe’s Life Before the Exodus

  • Harav Yaakov Medan


This shiur was written in commemoration of Ro’i Arbel, husband of Chagit and son of David and Nechama Arbel – a resident of Talmon, a pious and God-fearing man, among the builders and defenders of the land, who fell in the struggle for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and its roads and by-ways.

Earth, do not cover his blood, and let his cry not be silenced.


The Torah tells us that Moshe was eighty years old when he spoke to Pharaoh, just before the plagues befell Egypt: “And Moshe was eighty years old, and Aharon – eighty three, when they spoke to Pharaoh” (Shemot 7:7). What was Moshe doing for eighty years, up until this point?

Moshe’s age at the burning bush

Chazal offer three opinions as to how old Moshe was when he “grew up and he went out to his brethren” (2:11), and killed the Egyptian who was striking a Hebrew man. The middle opinion, which seems most reasonable and which Ramban also prefers, is that he was twenty at the time. The next day, the Hebrew man who was striking his fellow reported Moshe, and he was forced to flee to Midian, where he encountered Yitro’s daughters.


The next event that the Torah recounts is that Moshe reaches the burning bush and receives the mission of delivering Bnei Yisrael from Egypt. We are accustomed to think that from the moment of that episode at the burning bush, events unfolded in quick succession. This leads us to the conclusion that since twenty, Moshe has done nothing but shepherd Yitro’s flocks. Is this possible? Can we reasonably posit that Moshe has been shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks for sixty years?

A midrash known as Divrei Ha-yamim shel Moshe is sensitive to this question, and “appropriates” forty of those sixty years for a different story, in which Moshe ruled over Cush, and even married the queen of Cush – who is none other than the “Cushite woman whom he had taken” (Bamidbar 12:1). This rather fantastic account rests solely on the episode of the Cushite woman – which is easily explained in other ways. The Rishonim were therefore doubtful and questioned the veracity of this “external” midrash, such that we come back to our original question of what Moshe was doing all that time.

Moreover, if we assume that Moshe arrived in Midian at the age of twenty, we must assume that Tzippora was about the same age – a young woman, the eldest of seven daughters who shepherded Yitro’s flocks. When Moshe returned to Egypt to redeem his brethren he was nearly eighty, which means that Tzippora, too, must have been an elderly woman. Does it make sense that she then bore a son and circumcised him on the way?

For all of these reasons, I suggest that Moshe was younger at the time he stood at the bush and went to Egypt. I propose that he was in his prime – about 45 or 50 years old. Let us now try to discover what happened to him during the (approximately) thirty years between his setting off to redeem Israel, following the revelation at the burning bush, and the time when he stood before Pharaoh, at the age of 80 – the time of the redemption.

“But they did not listen to Moshe”

“Therefore, say to Bnei Yisrael: I am the Lord, and I shall bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be your God; and you will know that I am the Lord your God Who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am the Lord. And Moshe spoke thus to Bnei Yisrael, but they did not listen to Moshe for anguish of spirit (kotzer ruach) and for cruel bondage.” (6:6-9)

The commentators are divided as to what is meant by this “not listening.” Rashi explains that they refused to accept consolation; Ramban suggests shortness of breath due to their hard labor following the decree that they would no longer receive straw; Chizkuni interprets the verse to mean that they were afraid to listen to Moshe after Pharaoh’s decree, which was meant to prevent further contact between them and Moshe and Aharon; Rashbam proposes that Bnei Yisrael were disillusioned with Moshe after Pharaoh made their yoke even more difficult to bear.

The Mekhilta offers a different interpretation:

“R. Yehuda ben Beteira said: The text notes, ‘They did not listen to Moshe for anguish of spirit…’ – But is there anyone who hears good news and yet fails to feel happy? If a son is born to a person, if his master sets him free – is he not happy? If so, then why does the text say, ‘They did not listen to Moshe’? This tells us that it was difficult for them to turn away from idolatry, as it is written, ‘Then I said to them, Cast away every man the abominations of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt,’ and it is written, ‘But they rebelled against Me and would not listen to Me… So I acted for My Name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the eyes of the nations…’ (Yechezkel 20:7-8).” (Mekhilta Bo, Pascha 85)

What the “not listening” actually meant was a refusal to part with idolatry. The four expressions of redemption entailed not just a promise of a better future, but also a clear demand: “And I shall be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” This demand included abandoning idolatrous worship. Bnei Yisrael, whose confidence in Moshe and Aharon was eroded after the decree concerning the straw and the tightening of the subjugation following their meeting with Pharaoh, refused to listen to Moshe and to part from their idolatry.

What was God’s response to this? The Torah elaborates in some places while skipping over details in other places. The prophet Yechezkel offers the following description:

“Say to them - So says the Lord God: On the day when I chose Israel and lifted My hand to the seed of the house of Yaakov, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted My hand to them, saying, I am the Lord your God; on the day that I lifted My hand to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had spied out for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is an ornament for all the lands; then I said to them: Cast away every man the abominations of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against Me and would not listen to Me; they did not cast away every man the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, I shall pour out My fury upon them, to accomplish My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. So I acted for My Name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the eyes of the nations, among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known to them, in bringing them out of Egypt.” (Yechezkel 20:5-9)

From this prophecy of Yechezkel we see that Bnei Yisrael, who refused to give up their idolatry, were deserving of death, and it was only to avoid a desecration of His Name among the nations that God did not mete out punishment in accordance with the attribute of strict justice.

The possibility of a desecration of God’s Name is a reasonable justification for bypassing the Divine attribute of justice and not annihilating Bnei Yisrael – but it is difficult to posit that a generation that was truly deserving of annihilation, and was saved from this fate only for the sake of avoiding chilul ha-Shem, would be deserving of redemption. God’s attribute of justice cannot be bent that far.

Later in his prophecy, Yechezkel mentions the sin of the spies. There, too, God sought to destroy Bnei Yisrael, and there too, for the sake of His Name, God did not apply the punishment that they deserved – as recounted in Sefer Bamidbar. However, the generation that sinned was certainly not redeemed, and did not merit to enter the land. God was willing to postpone the punishment and give the next generation another chance.

Perhaps a similar scenario plays itself out in our parasha. God did not destroy the sinful generation that refused to be parted from idolatry, but at the same time He did not redeem them. The redemption waited for the next generation, which would perhaps be better – as indeed it was.

And so, following Moshe’s initial appearance and appeal, thirty years go by. In our parasha, God again appoints Moshe. Moshe repeats his argument that he is “of uncircumcised lips,” and God once again appoints Aharon to be his spokesman. All this had already taken place at the burning bush, but all that had happened a generation ago. History repeats itself in parashat Vaera, where Moshe is already eighty years old, and Aharon eighty three. The connection between them and the new generation of Bnei Yisrael is weaker, owing to the generation gap. The great disparity in ages, caused by the refusal of the earlier generation to redeem itself from idolatry and thereby facilitate its redemption from Egypt, is what planted the seed of the difficulties that arose later, time and time again, in the wilderness.


Translated by Kaeren Fish