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Born to Lead

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Moses transcended his status as an individual.


In this parsha we meet a person who turns out to be the major character of the Five Books of Moshe. His name is Moshe. Despite his absence in the Book of Bereishit, he becomes not only the major character, but the most important prophet and the first savior of the People of Israel. His birth is described as follows:

And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took for his wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and she saw him that he was good, and she hid him three months. And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with clay and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the river's brink. (Shmot 2:1-3)

The first curious element of this description is the absence of identification of the main protagonists. The father, the mother, and even the baby are not named or identified. Only from information revealed later do we gather who these people are. We are told only that the man was from the house of Levi, and his bride was a daughter of the house of Levi. This strange description is unparalleled in the accounts of births in the Torah up to this point. We must assume that there is a reason for the dearth of biographical detail.


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We are then told that upon birth his mother saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months.1 Again, the text is strange: Had she not liked the way he looked would she have handed him over to the authorities who were searching for newborn Jewish males? The Ramban2 observes that all mothers love their children and wish to protect them. What, then, is the meaning of this phrase, "she saw that he was good"? Apparently, she sensed something special about him and his destiny.

The phrase "she saw he was good" contains a scriptural hint. Rashi,3 quoting the Talmud, explains that the house filled with light. The Talmud derives this conclusion from the similar language used earlier in the Torah to describe the creation of light on the First Day.4 In both cases, the language "it (he) was good" is used, and the Talmudic reasoning is that we should draw a parallel conclusion when parallel language is employed. Thus, the use of this phrase here in Sh'mot should be understood as a reference to light. This conclusion is part of a larger Talmudic discussion of what Yocheved, mother of Moshe, saw:

'And when she saw him that he was good': It has been taught: R. Meir says: His name was Tov [good]; R. Yehudah says: His name was Toviah; R. Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of the prophetic gift; others say: He was born circumcised; and the Sages declare, 'At the time when Moshe was born, the whole house was filled with light'. It is written here, 'And when she saw him that he was good,' and elsewhere it is written: 'And God saw the light that it was good.' (Talmud Bavli Sotah 12a)

Born perfected, already circumcised; a room full of light; worthy of prophecy - each and every opinion is impressive, yet disturbing. What is strange about all this is that it describes incredible gifts, but no struggle. For most people, even the most gifted, life contains challenges and growth. How can a person be born perfected, capable of prophecy? This problem may be reflected in the choice the Sages made for the Haftorah reading for this parsha. Many communities read the words and deeds of the prophet who had a sad life, whose eyes saw destruction but not redemption, a man named Yermiyahu.

Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet to the nations. (Yirmiyahu 1:5)

The choice of the Haftorah seems specifically connected to the idea of a prophet "from the womb", their life's mission laid out even before they are born. Yet even as we note this parallel,5 the question remains: How can a person be on such an elevated spiritual plane as to receive the gift of prophecy without ever experiencing internal struggle, without the basic human need to strive for growth, discipline and enlightenment?6


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The Malbim7 addresses the effortless gift received by Yirmiyahu, explaining that Yirmiyahu's spiritual stature was different from that of other prophets: his selection was without pain, as is the natural process of receiving Divine Revelation. Yirmiyahu's was a prophecy needed by the masses, with no personal element. Therefore, the selection of Yirmiyahu was not a matter of personal choice on the part of Yirmiyahu; rather, he was a vessel used by God to complete His mission.

We can conjecture that Moshe's mission was similarly designed for the masses. His selection was not due to his own arduous struggle; in utero, he was elected, his mission pre-ordained. His greatness, therefore, was discernable at birth.

This analysis leads to, and perhaps sheds light on, another disturbing element of the Exodus: Did Pharoh have Free Will? Was he denied a choice when God "hardened his heart"? This issue has presented a theological challenge to many readers when trying to understand the justice of God's reward and punishment. A Pharoh who has had his Free Will curtailed should not be deserving of punishment.8

We now realize that Moshe and Pharoh are more worthy as adversaries than we ever would have thought. Both have been selected, even preordained, for their respective missions. To a certain extent, neither had a choice.

Rabbi Dovid Shlomo Eibshitz (1755-1814) in his Arvei Nachal,9 explains that kings enjoy advantages as well as disadvantages as compared to commoners. Clearly, kings have numerous advantages in terms of wealth and power. This not withstanding, they are not always empowered by God to make their own decisions. Their choices impact too many people. While the concept of Free Will is considered by most authorities to be a cornerstone of Judaism, it is not an absolute concept. There are processes that God desires to happen, and others He wishes to block. Kings, who can impact so many lives,10 often have their Free Will suspended.11 This is the meaning of the verse in the Book of Mishlei: "The Heart of a king is in the hand of God." 12

Pharaoh was a king, a very powerful monarch who ruled over a mighty empire - and his Free Will was suspended: The Jews would leave Egypt, and the plagues would be a parting gift. Conversely, Moshe would lead the Jews from Egypt. He would be the reluctant savior, but the Will of God is absolute.


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Nonetheless, we are puzzled. Why, of all the families of Israel, did Moshe emerge from this one? And if this family was so significant, why are their names withheld? Moreover, why does the Torah recount how a man from Levi took a daughter of Levi, as the introduction to the birth of Moshe? There is clearly a gap in the story, for Moshe had two older siblings; the narrative proceeds to tell of his sister, who kept a watchful eye on her baby brother. Much later in the narrative we learn that Aharon was three years Moshe's senior. The parents, then, were surely married at an earlier juncture. Why is the marriage recounted here?

The Talmud tells us that Moshe's parents, Amram and Yocheved, had separated as a response to Pharoh's decree that all males be thrown into the sea. They reasoned that bringing a child into such a world was futile, bordering on lunacy: Why bring a child into the world to be brutally murdered? Their own daughter attacked their reasoning, accusing her parents of being even more nefarious than Pharoh: Whereas his plan would kill only the males, their abstinence would prevent all children from being brought into the world. To make matters worse, Amram was quite influential, and if others followed his lead, no Jewish children would be born. Miriam, the erstwhile midwife, would not tolerate this result, and she chastised her parents:

'And there went a man of the house of Levi'. Where did he go? R. Yehudah b. Zevina said that he followed the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharoh had decreed 'Every son that is born shall be cast into the river,' he said: In vain do we labor. He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, 'Father, your decree is more severe than Pharoh's; because Pharoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females. Pharoh only decreed concerning this world whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the World to Come. In the case of the wicked Pharoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, you are righteous, your decree will certainly be fulfilled, as it is said: 'You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established!' He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.

Amram was not necessarily convinced that the situation had changed. Quite possibly, the opposite was the case: he may have thought the child born would be brutally murdered. He was convinced to return to his wife for the greater cause, for national preservation, for elevated, spiritual reasons, not personal reasons. Personally, he anticipated pain and death. But as a leader he was convinced that he had no choice, that he must do what is best for his people. Therefore, he didn't simply sneak back home one night. He made a wedding:

"And took for a wife?!?" It should have read, "and took back!" R. Yehudah b. Zevina said: He acted towards her as though it had been the first marriage; he seated her in a palanquin, Aharon and Miriam danced before her, and the Ministering Angels proclaimed, "A joyful mother of children." (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 12a)

The Maharal stresses that, demonstrably, with fanfare, a wedding was made.13 Others soon followed suit, taking their cues from Amram and Yocheved, who would not be intimidated. It seems that Shifra (Yocheved) and Puah (Miriam) had teamed up again and brought many Jewish children into the world.

As a result of the reunion of Amram and Yocheved, a child was born. His conception was not the result of fleeting personal passion. It was a result of one couple's dedication to God and love of nation. The Talmud teaches that when a man and woman sanctify a relationship, God enters into the relationship with them.14 Such was this union. Their thoughts and deeds were pure, as pure as those of any couple who were ever intimate.15 The child produced was produced for all the People of Israel, hence he became a holy vessel that belonged to all of Israel.

The Maharal16 teaches that this is the secret of Moshe; he was not an individual, he was part of the public domain (reshut harabim). This is why the text contains no personal names. At that moment they were no longer individuals, they were shlichai tzibbur. Throughout the Torah, Moshe's personal life was never primary. His own wife and children took a back seat to his primary role as teacher of all of Israel.

Perhaps this is the essence of being a Levite. When one brings God into one's home and private domain, one may soon find oneself in God's home - in His domain. From these parents the greatest leaders of Israel emerged: Kohanim from the line of Aharon, Levi'im from Moshe, and the kings of the Davidic Dynasty from Miriam.

Moshe's parents defied logic and set aside personal calculations in a time when the Jewish People sorely needed leaders. They needed the type of leaders who would place the good of the collective over the private concerns of individuals. From such people and such considerations, salvation is born.



1. The Torah's exact language is three "moons." According to tradition Moshe was born on the 7th of Adar and hidden away, only to be "revealed" three lunar months later - on the 6th of Sivan, the date the Torah itself would be given on Sinai many years later. The lunar month ("moon") is 29.5 days long. See Rabbenu Bachya, Shmot 2:2.

2. See Ramban, Shmot 2:2.

3. Rashi, Shmot 2:2.

4. For more on this light see Zohar Bereishit 31b: AND GOD SAID, LET THERE BE LIGHT, AND THERE WAS LIGHT. This is the original light which God created. This is the light of the eye. It is the light which God showed to Adam, and through which he was able to see from one end of the world to the other. It was the light which God showed to David, who on seeing it burst forth into praise, saying, "Oh, how abundant is thy goodness which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee" (Ps. 31:20). It is the light through which God showed to Moses the Land of Israel -from Gilead to Dan. When God foresaw that three sinful generations would arise, namely the generation of Enosh, the generation of the Flood, and the generation of the Tower of Babel, He put it away so that they should not enjoy it, and gave it to Moses for the first three months after he was born when his mother hid him. When he was brought before Pharaoh God withdrew it from him, and only restored it to him when he stood upon the mountain of Sinai to receive the Torah. From that time he had the use of it for the rest of his life, so that the Israelites could not approach him till he put a veil over his face (Shmot 34:30).

5. Rashi in his commentary to Yirmiyahu draws the parallel between Moshe and Yirmiyahu.

6. Yaakov also seems chosen before birth, however that selection is only evident in midrashic sources. See Midrash Rabbah Berishit 63:6. Yirmiyahu's selection is clearly stated in the text, and therefore is more similar to the selection of Moshe.

7. Malbim, Commentary to Yirmiyahu 1:5.

8. In my book on the Holidays, Emanations, I have dealt with this difficulty. See the discussion there for a fuller treatment of the issue.

9. Arvei Nahal, Vayechi.

10. See Malbim on Mishlei 25:3.

11. See Meshech Chachma Sh'mot 6.

12. Mishlei 21:1.

13. Maharal, Gur Aryeh Sh'mot 2:1.

14. Talmud Bavli Sotah 17a, see Rav Yosef Ya'avetz, Commentary to Avot 6:1.

15. See Menorat Hamaor section 184.


16. Maharal, Gevurot Hashem Chapter 16.



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