1.3. A View of Moses in the Context of the Dynamics of His Development

The ideas that Manitou propounds provide us with the tools we need for understanding all these problems as a single complex of interrelated factors.

Rabbi Manitou begins by pointing out that God would not have proposed to create a new people from Moses (32:10) had that offer not coincided, in some measure at least, with Moses’ own inner desire. Surely it is impossible to entice a person with something that he finds completely unattractive. And as Rabbi Manitou explains, Moses did in fact have just such a desire earlier on. And in fact, it was precisely for that reason that Moses was averse to accepting the mission of leading the Jews out of Egypt.

Following this approach, Moses’ life story is as follows.

Moses left Pharaoh’s palace while still a youth, having a dual identity. He was both a Jew and an Egyptian. “He went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors” (2:11) precisely in order to help him cope with his problem of self-identification. Seeing an Egyptian beating a Jew, Moses, who considered the Jews his brothers, and himself primarily a Jew, killed the Egyptian, although as a prince he could easily have gone up against an ordinary Egyptian overseer.

Moses wanted not only to save that particular Jew, but to arouse in the Jewish people, collectively, a sense of dignity – the understanding that it was unacceptable for them to tolerate any violence perpetrated against them.

Seeing the Jews physically and spiritually oppressed, Moses, as a potential king called upon to correct the world, takes the side of the Jews. He decides that the Egyptian overseer is a ruthless criminal, sentences him to death, and executes the sentence himself. By this action, Moses, rebelling against the Egyptian system of power, breaks from it, and kills “the Egyptian within himself.”

But “when he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known!” (2:13-14). And Moses flees Egypt.

We understand the words “the matter is known” as referring, of course, to the killing of the Egyptian. But the Midrash gives them a completely different meaning. Moses meant that it had now become known why the Jews were suffering in slavery. To wit: Even while unable to defend themselves, they censure a person who has come to help them. If things have come to that, thinks Moses, the Jews are hopeless. He flees Egypt, not only to escape from Pharaoh, but also to avoid having dealings with people whose behavior has greatly disappointed him.

Moses concludes that if the Jews in Egypt have so deteriorated on account of their slavery, this can only mean that the potential that they had inherited earlier from the Patriarchs is now completely lost. He therefore flees to Midian, where the descendants of Abraham from Keturah are living, and where perhaps, Moses hopes, a certain spirit of Abraham’s chosenness[1] is still preserved.

By marrying the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses hopes to become the father of a new chosen people. Moses comes “to Horeb, the mountain of God” (3:1), the future Mount Sinai, for he senses a Divine presence manifesting there. And that is exactly why Moses, when God calls on him to lead the Jews out of Egypt, refuses. Moses now has a different plan for creating a new chosen people, and an entire series of iterations is required until God finally persuades Moses to change his orientation.

We should note one of God’s central arguments in this dialogue with Moses: “When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (3:12). That is, the Sinai covenant will indeed be concluded, but it is predicated on principles quite different from those on which the covenant of the Patriarchs was based.

[1] Abraham gave the bulk of his inheritance to Isaac, distancing him from Midian and the other children of Keturah. However, those other children (and Ishmael too) did receive “gifts” from Abraham (Gen. 25:6). Thus, they too assimilated within themselves a reflection of Abraham’s personality and the covenant that God had made with him. Moreover, Jethro and his family accepted Moses with admirable hospitality, the central principle of behavior in Abraham’s family. In this way Jethro and his family demonstrated that they were indeed Abraham’s spiritual heirs. See also §4.5.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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