> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Moses: The Emergence of a Leader

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

How did Moses go from lowly shepherd to vanquisher of the Egyptian empire?

This week's Torah portion, the first segment of the Book of Exodus, tells the story of the enslavement – and the beginning of the liberation – of the Jews in Egypt.

There are many traditions regarding the nature of the Jewish community at the time, but the general picture that emerges is of a people who had strayed from the path of their forefathers.

Our Sages teach us that even circumcision had been abandoned, and Moses had to force it upon the population prior to the exodus.

At the same time, we are told that there were some aspects of tradition which remained intact – namely, the Jews retained distinct dress, names, and language.

It is fascinating to note that Moses himself – the savior, if you will – seems to be deficient in these areas.


Moses was born into a family from the tribe of Levi. At that time there was an edict that all newborn males be thrown into the Nile River. Moses was found as a baby by the daughter of Pharaoh, floating in a teva or "ark."She adopted him and named him; thus Moses was not his Hebrew name.

And the child grew, and was brought to the daughter of Pharaoh, he became a son to her, she named him Moses, and she said (explained) "for from the water he was drawn out." [Exodus 2:10]

When the daughter of Pharaoh named Moses what was she trying to communicate?

In order to understand the depth of her action, we must first understand who this woman was, and, for that matter who her father was. In the Book of Ezekiel the following passage appears:

Speak and communicate, thus says God, "Behold I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of the streams who says the (Nile) River is mine, for I created it." [Ezekiel 29:3]

Pharaoh believed that he was god of the Nile, that he created the Nile. This insight allows us to understand why the children were thrown into the Nile. When the midwives refused to kill the newborn males, Pharaoh suggested that they throw the babies into the water instead. In effect he said, "cast the children into the Nile, and the god of the Nile shall decide who will live and who will die", as if the midwives would not be performing the act of murder.

This will also give us insight into the first plague – "blood." Turning the Nile into blood was an act of war, perceived by the Egyptians as if someone had stabbed their god.

Not only did Pharaoh think that he was god of the Nile, but he named his daughter Btya, "daughter of god."

"And these are the children of Btya, daughter of Pharaoh" [Divri Hayamim I 4:18, also see "Kala Rabbati" 3:23, Vayikra Rabba 1:3]

This was the woman who saved, and named, Moses. Her father was "god of the Nile" she was daughter of "god", and she pulled a son out of the Nile, and named him Moses.


Btya, in naming Moses, was making a claim which had theological meaning as well as political implications. She was claiming that the Nile had given birth to her son.

Of course, she knew rationally, that one of the Hebrews had in fact given birth to Moses, but we must recall that casting the children into the Nile was not seen as murder, rather as some type of judgment.

Moses emerged from the Nile alive, which had theological significance for Btya. He was therefore declared "son of the Nile." She is obviously positioning him to become the next Pharaoh, or at least to take his place among the pantheon of Egyptian gods.

Therefore we see that not only does Moses have an Egyptian name, but his name is steeped with idolatrous connotations. How ironic that the savior of the Jews should be seen as a god by the Egyptians.

This insight also gives us a greater appreciation of Moses, for we now understand what is was like for him to leave the palace to "seek out his brothers."

When Moses interceded and killed the Egyptian, he was in effect rejecting the entire way of life that was laid out for him.Moses' heroic act – which has it's spiritual antecedent in the behavior of his great-grandfather Levi – was an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of a fellow Jew.

By killing the Egyptian, Moses forfeited his role in Egyptian society; he would no longer be seen as a god, but only as a Jew, and his chances of one day ascending the throne disappeared.

This self-sacrifice was the first step toward assuming the mantle of leadership of the Jews, but of course such considerations were quite foreign to Moses.


When Moses escapes Egypt, and he makes his way to Midian, he is described as Ish Mitzri, an "Egyptian man."

What was it about Moses that makes him seem Egyptian?

Was Moses an Egyptian? Rather, his clothes were Egyptian, but he was a Hebrew. [Midrash Rabba 1:32]

The second factor which contributed to the liberation was distinct dress. Here, too Moses is deficient.


The Jews also retained a different language, Hebrew, but here, too, Moses seems lacking. The Torah tells us that Moses had difficulty with speech:

I am not an eloquent man ... but I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue. [Exodus 4:10]

Later, Moses describes himself as v'ani oral sfataim – "I whose lips are uncircumcised." [Exodus 6:12 and 6:30] If we take the literal meaning, it emerges that Moses does not feel that he has the right to represent the people because his tongue is uncircumcised. In other words, Moses is too Egyptian to represent the Jews.

If, indeed, the Jews are saved because they retained these three practices, then Moses seems an unlikely savior. Why is Moses chosen?


As we saw by Moses' response to the oppression of his fellow Jew, he certainly did possess leadership qualities.

The model of leadership in the Jewish tradition is not the individual who is willing to subjugate others, rather the individual who is willing to sacrifice for others.

Moses was the most modest of men, became the finest leader and teacher that our people have had.

Furthermore, despite his upbringing, Moses rejected his role in Egyptian society, as well as the culture and beliefs of Egypt. This is evidenced by the fact that after leaving Egypt, we are told:

"And Moses was the shepherd of his father in laws flock" [Exodus 3:1]

This seemingly innocent statement has great significance, if we recall that when Joseph's brothers come to Egypt, Joseph warned them that they must delicately inform Pharaoh of their occupation:

"For every shepherd is considered an abomination in Egypt." [Genesis 46:34]

Moses become a shepherd, the most detestable occupation in the value system of Egypt.It was then that God revealed himself to Moses for the first time, at the "Burning Bush." The rejection of Egyptian life is whatapparently allowed the Divine Revelation.


We can begin to understand why Moses deserved to be leader: He possessed incredible spiritual integrity.

From where did Moses take the strength to change his life?What inspired Moses to begin a spiritual quest, an odyssey which would take him from heir to the Egyptian throne to freedom-fighter for the disenfranchised slaves?

From lowly shepherd to vanquisher of the Egyptian empire?

Moses embodied the chesed, "kindness" of Abraham, the gevurah, "strength" of Isaac, and emet, "truth" of Jacob.

These aspects of Moses' character became evident in his reaction to the beating of the Jewish slave. Moses felt kindness toward the victim.He displayed strength by holding back personal considerations and involving himself in the altercation. And finally Moses showed that he embodied truth by immediately discerning which side was right.

Moses certainly deserved his leadership role, but another question arises: Why did God choose a Jew brought up in the palace as the leader?

Evidently, in order for the exodus to take place precisely a person like Moses was needed.

A powerful lesson about the nature of the exodus canbe learned from this. Had God desired for the Jews to leave Egypt, He surely could have simply "willed" it. Why go through the entire process of plagues and negotiations with Pharaoh?


The purpose would seem to be twofold – it was necessary both for the Jews and for the Egyptians.

After spending all these years in Egypt, the beliefs of the Egyptians would have made inroads into the Jewish community. What better way to show the bankruptcy of the Egyptian belief system than having one of the Egyptian "gods" revealed as a Jew? For the Jews this would eradicate any nascent belief in Egyptian mythology.

Of course, some Jews did find it difficult to totally reject these influences, as can be seen by the sin of the "Golden Calf," but for most Jews the message was loud and clear. While Moses sees himself as unworthy to lead the Jews, God's response is that no one is more worthy --specifically because of Moses' "faults."

On the other hand, the message was also important for the Egyptians; they too needed to know that their religion was false. What better teacher than Moses, the ultimate "insider"? At one point he had dressed like them, talked like them, and they were even prepared to worship him.

This theme of educating the Egyptians is articulated in the Haftorah Vaeyra, where we are told that one day all the nations of the world will recognize God.

The redemption of Egypt, which serves as a prototype for the final redemption, had universal concerns – not merely does it illustrate the removal of the Jews from this foreign land, but it serves as a powerful polemic against the greatest civilization in the world at that time.

When the final redemption comes, it will not be of parochial, Jewish concern. It will be the greatest event in the history of the world, which will convince all the people of the world of the error of their ways.

Related Posts

1 2 3 2,888

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram