Who Are You Moshe Rabbeinu?

  • Rav Itiel Gold
Our parasha deals with the greatest event in Jewish history, the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is surprising then that precisely this parasha that contains such a sublime story opens with an event that at first glance seems so marginal – Yitro's arrival at the camp of Israel. The matter becomes all the more puzzling when we realize that the story probably did not take place at the time in which it appears in the biblical narrative.[1] The Rashbam offers convincing proof that this is the case (Shemot 18:13): Yitro's visit takes place at "the mountain of God" (18:5), but according to the sequence of events, Israel has not yet arrived there from Refidim (19:2). Even so, it seems that, conceptually at least, this story must precede the revelation at Mount Sinai. But what exactly is the connection between the stories?
Yitro's visit has two foci. The first describes Moshe's reunion with his father-in-law and his family. At this meeting, Yitro marvels at the story of the Exodus from Egypt, offers sacrifices to God, and partakes of a festive meal with the elders of Israel (18:1-12). The second emerges the next day, and includes Yitro's advice to Moshe about how best to organize the judicial system (18:13-26). Both parts of the story are puzzling. The first part appears marginal in relation to the grand events in which the people are participating, and it is not at all clear why it appears here. The second part seems technical and even trivial. Every nation has a legal system similar to the model suggested by Yitro. It is not clear why the Torah bothers to dwell on such advice. It is less clear why Yitro's suggestion precedes Israel's receiving of the Torah.
On closer inspection, however, it becomes evident that the story includes significant mental processes that take place between Moshe and the people. This will be clarified when we go back a bit in time.
The Identity of Moshe
Who is Moshe? It is reasonable to assume that already in his youth, Moshe experienced a split in his personal identity: He nursed at his mother's breast (2:9), but Pharaoh's daughter saw him as her own son (2:10). She even named him, probably choosing an Egyptian name over a Hebrew one.[2] His outward appearance was also that of an Egyptian, as described by the daughters of Yitro: "An Egyptian man rescued us" (2:19).
Even though he grew up in the house of Pharaoh, Moshe sees himself as a Hebrew and aspires to connect with his Hebrew brothers (2:11). In order to be part of a group, though, one must share experiences with the other members. But while the Hebrews groan with hard labor, Moshe grows up comfortably in the house of their great oppressor. The Hebrews do not see him as one of them and perhaps, for this reason, react to Moshe's initial attempts to help them with resistance and contempt. As the Hebrew man who was striking his fellow said, "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us" (2:14). The Hebrews see him as a foreign element, perhaps as an arrogant pampered child.
Moshe is forced to flee far away, to Midyan. There, to his already divided identity there is added yet another element; he becomes the son-in-law of a Midyanite priest. Moshe builds his own family under the patronage of Yitro and works as his shepherd. He becomes completely assimilated into his Midyanite clan, far from the suffering Hebrew experience, which further disconnects him from his brothers.
To summarize, Moshe was born a Hebrew, grew up as an elitist Egyptian, and in his adulthood joined the Midyanite elite. It can be assumed that it was no simple matter to carry all these identities within him. But more than that, it was not easy to come with this variety of identities and try to lead the people of Israel.

Moshe vis-à-vis the People

Understanding the complexity of Moshe's identity provides us with a new perspective from which to consider the events relating to the Exodus from Egypt. In our study of Parashiyot Vaera and Bo, we noted that the people of Israel did not answer Moshe's call to leave Egypt. We connected this primarily to Israel's slave mentality. It is possible, however, that Moshe's foreignness also played a role here. It was difficult for the people to accept a leader who did not share their experience of bondage and whose basic identity was distant from theirs.[3]
On the other hand, we can also better understand God's choice of Moshe. "A prisoner cannot free himself from jail," teaches the Gemara (Berakhot 5b). Only an outsider, whose soul is not deeply marked by slavery, can dream, believe in, and struggle for independence.
Eventually, the people followed Moshe out of Egypt, largely under coercion.[4] However, their feelings were still mixed. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Moshe provided results in the form of miracles. On the other hand, he was still perceived as an outsider. Just as the Exodus was experienced as forced upon the people, so was his leadership. The people's ambivalence toward Moshe is clearly evident in Parashat Beshalach.
Thus, for example, the people cry out to him, before the parting of the sea: "Why have you dealt thus with us [emphasis added], to bring us out of Egypt" (14:1) – you are a foreign element and do things to us against our will. Indeed, one of the goals of the splitting of the sea was to strengthen Moshe's leadership in the eyes of the people. We see this from the results: "And they believed in the Lord, and in His servant, Moshe" (14:31). Apparently, before that, belief in him had not yet developed. However, despite the optimism at the end of the story of the splitting of the sea, the stories that follow indicate that the connection between Moshe and the people was still problematic.
To better define the problem, let us turn to an interesting question raised by the Gemara in Nedarim (35b) regarding the priests: Are they "God's agents" or "our agents," that is to say, are they God's agents to operate His Temple, or are they the people's agents, to serve in their stead in the Temple? The same question may be directed at Moshe's leadership. Is he God's messenger sent to the people, or is he the people's messenger to God?
It seems that the people see Moshe as God's messenger to them. He is perceived by them as a miraculous figure, drawing them out of Egypt with his Divine powers and leading them through the hardships of the desert. Moshe, on his part, actually prefers to be the people's messenger to God. That is obvious from the beginning of the story, when he expresses his desire to go the people and connect with them before he goes to Pharaoh.[5] It is evident too in the stories of his asking to fulfill their needs in the previous parasha. This can be clearly seen regarding Israel's complaint about food:
And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said to them: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt  … for you have brought us forth [emphasis added] into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (16:2-3)
Put simply, they accused him: "Why did you and God take us out of Egypt? Did you plot a pot against us? It would have been easier for you to do it in Egypt, when we were sated!" Beyond the harsh accusations, one can see the people's feelings of emotional detachment from Moshe. They see him as working together with God, in various plots, detached from what they themselves want. Moshe in his answer responds to this very point:
And Moshe said: “This shall be, when the Lord shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full… and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord [emphasis added]. (16:8)
Moshe tries to be perceived as the messenger of the people and not just as the messenger of God. He says, in effect, "We are not on opposite sides of the barricade!" I am with you! Your complaints are justified, but it is not I, but rather God, who is the proper address. Let us turn to Him together.” But the people do not respond to Moshe’s argument.[6] It is possible that they are incapable of understanding what he means to say. The consciousness of the distance between them and the God-Moshe unit is too deeply rooted. In response, Moshe first tries to draw all the people of Israel closer to God, through his mediation. It is possible that he wants to stop being the sole representative of the words of God and prefers that the encounter between the people and God be direct, with him serving only as mediator between them:
And Moshe said to Aharon: “Say to all the congregation of the children of Israel: ‘Come near before the Lord [emphasis added]; for He has heard your murmurings.’” And it came to pass, as Aharon spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. (16:9-10)
Does Moshe succeed in creating a connection between him and the people, as a unit working together before God? Apparently not, at least not until Yitro arrives. This is evidenced by the story about the demand for water in Refidim:
The people strove with Moshe, and said: “Give [in plural] us water that we may drink [emphasis added].” (17:2)
What do the people mean when they say, "Give" in the plural? After all, they are appealing here only to Moshe! Apparently, once again they see Moshe and God as a single unit and turn to the two of them together. The people and Moshe are on opposite sides of the barricade. Once again, they see him as God's representative and not as their leader before God. Again, Moshe tries to convince them that he is not the address of their complaint. That is God: "And Moshe said to them: ‘Why do you strive with me?’" (17:2). But once again his attempts fail and the people complain to him, and not to God (17:3). At this point Moshe breaks:
And Moshe cried to the Lord, saying: “What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (17:4)
Moshe is worried about the intensity of the people's complaints against him. He can no longer serve as God's representative, against them. In response, God manages to calm him down and instructs him to bring forth water out of the rock. But this is not an answer to Moshe's true desire to change his position and become the leader of the people and not just an outside messenger forced on them.
In the next story relating to the war against Amalek, Moshe seems to have come to terms with his role. The confrontation with Amalek is managed by two leaders: Moshe, who ascends the mountain and raises his hands, and Yehoshua who actually leads the people and fights. Thus Moshe's role moves entirely to the Divine-miraculous plane, unconnected to the leadership of the people on the real level.
However, this situation is problematic. It will make it difficult for the people to accept the Torah, which is supposed to pass from its Divine source to them. If Moshe continues to be perceived as God's representative but detached from the people, it will be difficult for him to fulfill his role – the mediator who brings the Torah to the people. At this point, we come to the story of Yitro.
Time for Connections
The story of Yitro's arrival touches on the two sensitive points that are associated with Moshe and connected to each other. The first day of the visit creates a connection in Moshe's personal identity and the second day changes the relationship between the people and Moshe.
A central part of Moshe's identity is still divided, even after the Exodus. At the beginning of the parasha, we learn that until now, his family has been living far away, in Midyan. This despite the explicit description, after the incident involving the Burning Bush, of how they returned with him to Egypt (4:20). It turns out that something didn't work. Moshe's family was unable to integrate into the people of Israel and returned to Midyan. But now is the time for connections. Moshe reunites with his family and even his father-in-law, the Midyanite priest, connects to the belief in the God of Israel (18:9-10). The split within Moshe is mended and he can connect to Israel more fully, together with his family.[7] At the end of the first day of Yitro's visit, we witness a solemn event which gives official backing to the connection:
And Aharon came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moshe's father-in-law before God. (18:12)
This eating is the official ceremony in which the people of Israel, represented by their elders, accept Yitro, and with him the former Midyanite identity of Moshe. It is interesting that Moshe is not mentioned as being present at this meal, and Rashi has difficulty explaining the matter. It seems that the emphasis here is on the acceptance of Moshe's Midyanite past on the part of Israel. This is more important than the actual eating with Moshe.
Now we can begin to think about a shift in the general relations between Israel and Moshe. On the second day of the visit, Yitro is astonished to find out that Moshe has been judging the people alone from morning to evening. He offers him advice that seems obvious – to divide up the responsibility. It would seem that Moshe was smart enough to come up with this simple idea. The difficulty, however, was on the emotional rather than the intellectual level. This, in light of the dynamics that developed between him and the people, described above. The people see him as the sole representative of God and therefore they come to him in droves, to hear the word of God:
And Moshe said to his father-in-law: “Because the people come to me to inquire of God … and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.” (18:15-16)
Israel's coming to Moshe from morning to evening simultaneously reflects their low self-esteem — they can only receive the laws from him, but they cannot be his partners in leadership. In any case, we understand Moshe, who is unable to assign them powers and responsibilities. After the plethora of difficult stories in the previous parasha, Moshe internalizes the idea that the people do not see him as a leader connected to them, but as a detached messenger of God. This makes it very difficult to delegate power and work collaboratively. Moshe becomes a centralized super-leader who cannot relinquish his powers to others.
Yitro recognizes this, and even before offering his technical advice, touches precisely on this central point: "Be you for the people before God [emphasis added], and bring you the causes to God" (18:19). To effect the change, Moshe needs to change his position vis-à-vis the people. He must move to the side of the people and with them stand facing [emphasis added] God. He can no longer serve only as God's representative, with the people coming to him. That situation will eventually cause him to collapse from overload (18:18). Only with a profound change in the relationship between Moshe and the people, will it be possible to transfer powers and responsibilities to them. The connection to the people will lead to joint leadership.
It is no coincidence that it is Yitro who brings about this change. Only after Moshe connects with the people, through their acceptance of his family and overall identity, can the full connection between them be created. Now, from the renewed connection and partnership between Moshe and the people, can Israel receive the Torah. Moshe is no longer just a messenger of God, but is capable of being a leader of and partner with Israel. Giving the Torah requires him to use all of his faculties. He must fill his previous role as God's messenger – he must ascend Mount Sinai and receive the Torah. But he must also serve in the role of connected leader and partner of the people, in order to succeed in passing on the Torah to the people of Israel.
The Renewed Connection
The change in the triangle – Moshe-God-the people of Israel – can be seen immediately in the next chapter, which deals with the preparations for receiving the Torah. Moshe ceases to be on God's side alone, and is now in the middle, as a mediator between God and the people and the people and God:
And Moshe went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying: “Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakov, and tell the children of Israel “[emphasis added]. (19:3)
And Moshe came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moshe reported the words of the people to the Lord. (19:7-8)
And the Lord said to Moshe: “Lo, I come to you in a thick cloud” … And Moshe told the words of the people to the Lord. (19:9)
And the Lord said to Moshe: “Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow ….” And Moshe went down from the mount to the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments [all emphases added]. (19:10-14)
In preparation for the revelation at Mount Sinai, Moshe ascends and descends several times to pass messages from God to the people and vice versa. He becomes a matchmaker for the upcoming wedding between God and Israel. How far is the atmosphere in these uplifting verses from the atmosphere in the stories of Parashat Beshalach. Moshe is no longer perceived as a Divine and distant figure. He finally realizes his full role, in which he is not only God's messenger, but also the messenger and leader of the people to make contact with God. Only in this way can Moshe become the figure who can transfer the Torah from heaven above to the earth below, from God to Israel.
(Translated by David Strauss)

* *Rav Gold is a psychologist and teacher of Jewish philosophy.
[1] This is the position of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and the Rashbam. In contrast, according to the Ramban, this story took place at the time in which it appears in the Torah, in accordance with his general position, that the stories in the Torah appear in their chronological order. However, the position of the majority of the commentators is more persuasive, and there are many proofs for it in the parasha.
[2] Cassuto explains that "Moshe" in the Egyptian language means "son." This also follows from the verse, "And he became her son. And she called his name Moshe" (2:10). The verse's midrashic interpretation of the name (Moshe – "because I drew him [meshitihu] from the water") is a later creation, perhaps of the people of Israel. See M. D. Cassuto, Perush al Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem 5728, pp. 10-11.
[3] In similar fashion, this may give us a new perspective on the argument between Moshe and God at the Burning Bush, which we discussed in our study of Parashat Vaera. Moshe was concerned about his appointment as leader by God, and therefore he preferred to first connect with the people and only afterwards approach Pharaoh.
[4] See our study of Parashat Bo.
[5] See our study of Parashat Vaera.
[6] We find an interesting phenomenon here. The phrase "And Moshe said" appears three times in a row, without a response on the part of the people: 6: "And Moshe and Aharon said to all the children of Israel: ‘At evening, then you shall know that the Lord has brought you out from the land of Egypt.’" 8: "And Moshe said: ‘This shall be, when the Lord shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full.’" 9: "And Moshe said to Aharon: ‘Say to all the congregation of the children of Israel: Come near before the Lord.’"
This phenomenon indicates that Moshe tried to open a dialogue with the people. He said what he said and waited for a response. When a response was not forthcoming, he tried to speak again and again, but the people failed to respond. From here we see the severity of the disconnect between the two sides, particularly when Moshe tries to bring them closer to God.
[7] An allusion to the mending of the disconnect taking place here is found in the explanation given for the names of Moshe's sons, appearing at the beginning of the parasha: "of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land;’ and the name of the other was Eliezer: for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh" (18:3-4). On the face of it, the explanation of the names is superfluous and adds nothing to the story. What is more, the explanation of Gershom's name was already given earlier (2:22). It seems that the important point here is the gap between the two names. Gershom was born at the height of Moshe's detachment from his people, and that explains his name. Eliezer was born at a later period, apparently close to Moshe's return to his people (as is evident from the circumcision that was performed on the way back to Egypt – 4:25). Therefore his name reflects the connection between Moshe and his people: "for the God of my father was my help." The name also includes identification with the struggle of the people of Israel: "and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh."