Moshe – Overview

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Introduction

For many readers, Moshe Rabbeinu looms larger than life.  He is an unparalleled prophet and miracle-maker with a unique connection to Hashem, the only human to regularly speak to God face to face. But he is also a leader of men, someone who stands up to kings, champions the cause of justice, and manages a fledgling nation in a grueling wilderness. He provides for both the people's physical and spiritual needs, nurturing, chastising, defending and teaching in turn. And, somehow, he still manages to be the most humble of beings.

The overview below will attempt to explore both Moshe's character and career, looking at his unique traits and triumphic moments but also at his challenges and difficulties.  It will look at not only Moshe Rabbeinu after he has become a beloved leader, but also Moshe the person en route to leadership.  Commentators discuss both of these stages, often differing greatly in their evaluations and explanations of Moshe's deeds. The varying portraits drawn leave much food for thought and many lessons to explore.

Prophet

Unparalleled prophecy

Devarim 34 declares Moshe's prophetic abilities unparalleled: "וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ י״י פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים".

Prophetic Autonomy?

Throughout most of Torah, Moshe acts according to the Divine command.  However, on occasion, he appears to act without prior Divine consultation, even declaring on his own initiative that miracles will occur.3  On other occasions, we find him speaking in Hashem's name even though we have no previous record of any such speech of Hashem.4  Are we to assume that in all of these cases, despite the textual silence, Moshe must nonetheless have operated according to a received Divine directive? Or, is it possible that, at times, Moshe had the authority to make his own decisions, declare miracles on his own, and even to attribute these initiatives to Hashem? Commentators debate the question:

  • All Divinely commanded – All of Moshe's deeds and everything he conveyed in Hashem's name was Divinely commanded.  Despite Hashem's instructions not being explicitly mentioned, it can be assumed or implied from context that they were communicated to Moshe.5
  • Moshe's own initiative – In certain instances, Moshe had the autonomy to determine his own course of action even without Hashem's prior approval. Moreover, he could even invoke supernatural means to do so and /or lend authority to his decisions by invoking Hashem's name.6  For further  discussion and sources, see Prophetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction and Invoking Hashem's Name Without Explicit Divine Sanction.

Miracle Maker

The concluding verses of Torah suggest that no other prophet compares to Moshe, not only in his prophetic prowess, but also in all of the signs and wonders he wrought. What, though, was so exceptional about Moshe's miracle-making? Did not other prophets perform similar feats?7 [See Moshe's Epitaph – Signs and Wonders and Miracles for full discussion.]

Unique Traits

Sense of Justice

See Tzeror HaMor Tzeror HaMor Shemot 2:11About R. Avraham Saba (Tzeror HaMor)who points to the fact that in Shemot 2, Moshe saved not just his fellow Israelites from injustice but also unknown Midianite women as proof that Moshe was driven by a sense of justice and mercy and not just kinship.  It was this trait, he suggests, that merited Moshe to be the leader of Israel. See below, though, that not all share this positive view of Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian.

Humility

"מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה" (Shemot 3:11) – When Hashem tasks Moshe with the mission of confronting Paroh to demand that he let the nation go, Moshe responds, "מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה".  Is Moshe's hesitation to accept Hashem's mission an expression of modesty, fear, or something else?

"וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד" (Bemidbar 12:3) – This verse declares Moshe to be more humble than any other individual.

Possible Sins

In several places in Torah, commentators question Moshe's behavior and suggest that he might have sinned, even if this is not explicit in the text:

Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian (Shemot 2)

Many laud Moshe for killing the Egyptian taskmaster (Shemot 2:11-12) and view him as championing the cause of justice. Others, though, question whether his response was not overly harsh and if Moshe was justified in taking the law into his own hands: [See Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian for elaboration.]

Moshe at the Malon (Shemot 4)

Hashem's attempt to kill Moshe (or perhaps his son) during the incident at the inn (Shemot 4:24-26) implies that there had been some serious transgression.  Yet, there is no explicit mention of any wrongdoing in the text.  Moreover, attributing a crime to Moshe implies that Hashem had chosen an unworthy messenger! How, then, is the story to be understood?  Is it a tale of sin and punishment or something else? For details, see Mystery at the Malon.

"לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה" – An Unwarranted Accusation? (Shemot 5)

After Moshe's initial failed negotiations with Paroh, he accuses Hashem, "why have you harmed the nation?!" (Shemot 5:22). Considering that Hashem had previously told him that Paroh was not going to acquiesce immediately, Moshe's complaint appears unwarranted, leading commentators to question whether it constituted a sin:

  • Unwarranted – Bavli Sanhedrin 111a has Hashem castigate Moshe for questioning Him and not trusting that He would punish Paroh and redeem the nation.  It even suggests that Moshe's inability to enter Israel and participate in the Wars of Conquest was punishment for casting such aspersions on Hashem.
  • Appropriate – Ibn EzraShemot Second Commentary 5:22-23About R. Avraham ibn Ezra, on the other hand, maintains that Moshe's complaint was legitimate.  Moshe was distressed not that Paroh had refused to free the nation, but that he had intensified the workload due to Moshe's demands. Cassuto goes further to suggest that Moshe's words betrayed true leadership. It is a leader's job to look out for his flock, even if that means speaking harshly to Hashem.11

"הֲצֹאן וּבָקָר יִשָּׁחֵט לָהֶם וּמָצָא לָהֶם" – Lack of faith? (Bemidbar 11)

When the nation complains about lack of food in Bemidbar 11 and Hashem tells Moshe that he will bring them meat, Moshe appears to question Hashem's abilities, asking: "שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ בָּשָׂר אֶתֵּן לָהֶם וְאָכְלוּ חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים" (Bemidbar 11:21).  How is Moshe's question to be understood?  Does it not betray a lack of faith in Hashem?

Moshe and Mei Merivah (Bemidbar 20)

In this story Hashem explicitly punishes Moshe (and Aharon), telling them "לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל".  It is not at all clear, however, what specific action constituted the sin, and why this error was so grievous that it resulted in the brothers being refused entry into the Land. For more, see Moshe's Misstep and Mei Merivah.

Possible Flaws

Misunderstanding Hashem

Commentators disagree as to whether it is legitimate to maintain that Moshe could have ever misunderstood Hashem. After all, if a prophet can make a mistake and misinterpret Hashem's words, how can he be trusted to correctly transmit Hashem's messages?

Lack in Leadership

Administrative Shortcomings – Some exegetes suggest that Moshe exhibited certain weaknesses as an administrator, while others think that saying so borders on the blasphemous:

  • Yitro's Advice (Shemot 18) – When Yitro sees the nation standing online to await Moshe's judgment, he suggests that Moshe delegate some of his responsibilities to lighten the load. Yitro's advice seems like such an obvious and simple solution that one cannot help but wonder: How could it be that Moshe, the greatest of all men and in possession of a direct line to Hashem, needed Yitro's help to figure this out? [See Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice?]

Lack of initiative? Though many suggest that Moshe's sin at Mei Merivah in Bemidbar 20 related to the realm of man and God, others suggest that the problem was one of faulty leadership, specifically Moshe's lack of initiative.

    • See, for instance, Minchah BelulahBemidbar 20:12About R. Avraham Porto who asserts that in "fleeing" to the Tent of Meeting, Moshe betrayed a fear of the nation and an inability to act and rebuke them on his own.
    • Others, though, see in this very same action a positive act.  According to them, prophetic greatness lies in strict obedience to Hashem's word.  A prophet should not act on his own, but must always consult with Hashem and follow Hashem's commands. For further discussion, see Prophetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction.

Misunderstanding the nation? –  Commentators raise the possibility that in certain instances there might have been a communication gap between Moshe and the people:

  • Petition of the Two and a Half Tribes – In this story, Moshe initially responds negatively to the request to settle the eastern bank of the Jordan, chastising the tribes for leaving the burden of fighting to the rest of the nation (Bemidbar 32).  Immediately thereafter, Reuven and Gad express their willingness not just to fight, but even to lead the nation in battle, whereupon Moshe agrees to their original demands. What leads to the about-face both on the part of the tribes and on the part of Moshe? Did the tribes change their stance only due to Moshe's condemnation, or had they always planned to take part in the Conquest?  Might Moshe have misunderstood their intent?
    • Moshe misjudges – AbarbanelBemidbar 32About R. Yitzchak Abarbanel maintains that Moshe misunderstood the tribes' request and wrongly assumed that they did not want to participate in the Canaanite campaign when they had meant to all along.25
    • Moshe judges correctly Akeidat YitzchakBemidbar Peirush 32About R. Yitzchak Arama, in contrast, justifies Moshe's angry reaction, opining that Moshe correctly read the tribes' petition and that it really was problematic both on the interpersonal level,26 and in relation to Hashem.27 In face of Moshe's anger, the tribes revise their proposition and only then does Moshe agree.

Errors in Judgment

Several commentators suggest that, at times, Moshe might have made errors in judgement:

  • Mystery at the Malon – See Ibn Ezra's understanding of the story discussed above.
  • Story of the spies – See Abarbanel who suggests that the nation requested spies to determine the route of the conquest and which cities they should attack, but Moshe, on his own, added that they should also evaluate the strength of the people and the fortifications of the cities and the like. Though Moshe had good intentions, it was this further scrutiny that led to the spies' failure.28

Anger

Several commentators have faulted Moshe for unwarranted anger:

Speech Impediment

The three verses of Shemot 4:10, 6:12, and 6:30 describe Moshe's speech impediment using the terms of "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן" and "עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם‎". Exegetes debate whether or not this disability was of a physical nature, and why Hashem would choose a disabled messenger to be His spokesman. See Moshe's Speech Impediment.

Birth and Upbringing

Miraculous Birth?

Commentators divide in how they view Moshe's birth and early years, with some presenting every aspect of these as being filled with miracles and others seeing them in a more natural light.

Palace Upbringing

Why might Hashem have orchestrated events so that Moshe would be brought up specifically in the palace of a king?

Family Ties

What did Moshe know of his biological family? Did his family maintain a relationship with him after he was adopted by the princess?  Shemot 4:14 implies that he and Aharon had a close relationship, but if he grew up in the palace where did this come from? These questions are related to a textual ambiguity. Shemot 2:10 states, "וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת פַּרְעֹה וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן".  How old was Moshe when he "grew up" and was adopted by the princess?

  • Moved after weaning – Shemot Rabbah1:261:261:285:8About Shemot Rabbah suggests that the phrase "וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד" refers to Moshe's weaning and that Moshe moved to the palace at the age of two. If so, it is possible that Moshe did not really know his family. Shadal,43 however, asserts that Yocheved visited her son from time to time, and that Moshe thus had a continued connection to his family.44
  • Moved as a youth – Alternatively, though, one could suggest that "וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד" means that Moshe only left his home after he matured and was no longer a young boy. See R. Chama in Shemot Rabbah5:2About Shemot Rabbah who suggests that Moshe was 12 when taken from his parents' home.
  • Never moved – HaKorem uniquely suggests that Moshe actually never moved to live in the palace.  According to him, the word "וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן" in Shemot 2:10 refers to Yocheved, who requested of Paroh's daughter that she (Yocheved) receive the boy as a son instead of a nursing fee. Alternatively, the phrase "וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן" does refer to the princess, but might merely mean that she served as a "godmother" while Moshe lived in his real home.45

Religious Identity

Journey to Belief

At what age did Moshe recognize that he was an Israelite?  How did he know that the Israelites were "his brothers"? Had he any connection to his nation and Hebrew roots while growing up? What did he know of Hashem? Though most readers assume that Moshe was "religious from birth", the verses are less clear.

  • Always viewed himself as Israelite – According to those opinions that Moshe lived at home for a significant period of time, that he had a continued relationship with his parents, or that he never moved to the palace at all (see discussion above), Moshe was likely always very connected to his nation, its values, and its monotheistic belief system.
  • Cognizant of Israelite identity only later RambanShemot 2:11About R. Moshe b. Nachman, in contrast, maintains that Moshe first found out that he was Israelite in later years, right before he went out to "see his brothers". This would suggest that he knew almost nothing about his nation or its belief system when fleeing to Midyan. If so, Moshe's story might be one of a journey towards belief rather than of a leader born into it. It is perhaps first at the "burning bush," when Hashem reveals Himself to Moshe, that their relationship begins.
  • Somewhere in the middle -– RalbagShemot Beur HaMilot 2:11About R. Levi b. Gershom takes a middle position, implying that though Moshe grew up in the palace, he nonetheless knew about his Israelite roots early on. He even raises the possibility that everyone in the palace might have known that Moshe was an Israelite.46  It is not clear according to this reading, however, how this knowledge impacted Moshe. Though he might have known his "real" nationality, did Moshe prefer to identify as Hebrew or Egyptian? What did he know of Hashem?

The issue is related to several other questions:

  • When Moshe saved the Hebrew from the taskmaster, were his actions motivated by a feeling of brotherhood or just a strong sense of justice?
  • When the daughters of Reuel speak about Moshe's aiding them, they say, "אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ".  Does this imply that Moshe, too, viewed himself first and foremost as an Egyptian?
  • How is one to understand Moshe's marriage to Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest? [See discussion below.]
  • "גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נׇכְרִיָּה" - In naming his son Gershom, was Moshe suggesting that he felt like a foreigner in Midyan because they were not Israelite (Malbim), or because they were not Egyptian?

Moshe at the Burning Bush

How is Moshe's hesitancy to accept his mission to be understood?  See the discussion above regarding Moshe's statement "מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה".

Intermarriage?

The question of whether Moshe intermarried arises regarding both his marriage to Zipporah, described in Shemot 2, and his marriage to the Cushite woman, alluded to in Bemidbar 12:

I. Moshe's Marriage to Zipporah – How could Moshe marry the daughter of an idolatrous priest?  [For elaboration, see Moshe's Family Life, Zipporah, and Yitro – Religious Identity.]

II. Moshe's Marriage to the Cushite – Bemidbar 12:1 shares that Miryam and Aharon complained about "the Cushite woman which Moshe took". This is the first time that this marriage is spoken of in Tanakh.  When and why did Moshe marry a Cushite?  The fact that the siblings gossip about it in Bemidbar would suggest that it took place after the Revelation at Sinai.  If so, why was this legitimate? Were the siblings not justified in their critique?

Was Moshe's Son Uncircumcised and Why?

Marriage and Family Life

Marriage


See the discussions above regarding whether or not Moshe intermarried and how his marriage to both Zipporah and the Cushite have been viewed.

Divorce?

Shemot 18 describes how Yitro returns Zipporah to Moshe "אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ".  Does this phrase suggest that Moshe had previously divorced his wife? See אחר שלוחיה and When Did Zipporah Return to Midyan.

Children

See the discussion above regarding why they were not circumcised.

In-laws

  • Who was Moshe's father-in-law? In Shemot 2:16-21, Zipporah's father in introduced as Reuel, yet in subsequent chapters (Shemot 3:1Shemot 4:18 and Shemot 18) it is Yitro who is referred to as "choten Moshe" (a term generally understood to mean father-in-law).  To complicate matters further, Bemidbar 10:29 speaks of  "Chovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, the choten of Moshe".  What is the relationship between all the various characters? Was Yitro, Reuel, or Chovav Moshe's father-in-law?
    • Commentators offer almost every possible permutation of the characters' relationship one to another, with some positing that there were 3 distinct individuals (M. Mendelssohn in the BIur), others identifying all three characters as one and the same person, (Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael) and yet others identifying just two of the three: Yitro and Reuel (Hoil Moshe) or Yitro and Chovav (Rashbam). 
    • The various possibilities allow Yitro to be either Moshe's father-in-law, brother-in-law or grandfather-in-law.  For details, see Yitro – Names.
  • A unique relationship – Whether Yitro is Moshe's father-in-law or brother-in-law, the two appear to have a fairly positive relationship.  In contrast to Yaakov and Lavan or David and Shaul, who are in constant strife, Moshe and Yitro appear to get along without trickery, jealousy or hatred.  For a detailed comparison of the various relationships and how this might shed light on the characters of Moshe and Yitro, see In-laws.

The Nation's Perceptions of Moshe

Questioning Moshe's Authority

The nation's travels in the Wilderness are marked by complaints, many of them aimed at Moshe. In any given story, though, the fact that Moshe is the address of the people's grievances might stem from one of two opposing attitudes – trust and dependence on Moshe or rebellion against him.

  • Trust – See Derashot HaRan that most of the nation's complaints to Moshe likely stemmed from their utter dependence upon him.  They were not a sign of rebellion but of need; the people continuously whined to Moshe because they trusted him to help and provide for them, not because they thought he had failed them.49
  • Rebellion –  Others see in many of the people's complaints (at least after the first year) a direct challenge to Moshe:.
    • Tavera and Kivrot HaTa'avah – In contrast to the complaints of the first year which are addressed to Moshe, the complaints of Tavera and Kivrot HaTa'avah are aired in public.  This is perhaps the problem; the nation is no longer looking for Moshe to aid them but for Moshe to take the blame.
    • Miryam and Aharon – See Miryam's Critique of Moshe for opinions which suggest that the siblings were not merely gossiping about Moshe's wife but contesting Moshe's leadership and claiming themselves his equal.
    • The spies – Commentators debate the specific sin of the people which led to their punishment in the aftermath of the spies' report.  See Derashot haRan who claims that the nation's main error was their statement "נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה" and their desire to replace Moshe with a new leader.
    • Korach's rebellion –  Commentators debate what was the main focal point of the uprising, but see Ramban in Korach's Rebellion who claims that Datan and Aviram's complaint was aimed solely at Moshe, as they challenged his leadership and failure to bring the nation to the Promised Land.

Comparison to Other Figures

Setting up foils is often a useful method to highlight the unique aspects of a character or story. What can be learned about Moshe from the following comparisons?

Moshe in the Arts

Moshe's life and deeds have been often depicted in the arts.  The varying artistic renderings offer differing interpretive stances on each story, adding another layer to the text.  See some of the examples below:

 

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