I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people discovering their true identity which has been buried away under another, often very different one. Moses’ discovery of his real identity is one of the classic examples. It is, of course, something he has to do before he can come, not as an Egyptian but a Hebrew, to the Burning Bush.
It’s a common theme in mythology for a ruler to disguise themself as one of the people and go out among them, incognito, to see what’s going on. Maybe that’s what Moses, the Egyptian prince, did. “When Moses had grown up,” we read, “he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labour.” But kings don’t usually feel such a sense of kinship even with their own people, let alone a bunch of slaves. Moses sees a taskmaster beating a slave “he turns this way and that, and seeing no one about, struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”1 One of those little incidents in the Torah, occupying just a couple of verses, so easy to pass over, yet which says so much.
So where does Moses’ sense of kinship with the slaves come from? Rabbi Marc Gellman writes modern midrashim on the text in an amusing, yet profound way. In one of them he tries to explain that mysterious transformation in Moses. He links it to things Moses might have known from his distant past as the child of Hebrew slaves. Gellman has Moses, in disguise, in the slave encampment one Friday night when he smells chicken soup – no, don’t even ask what an Egyptian prince is doing in the slave encampment nor how slaves who weren’t yet Jewish knew about Friday night chicken soup….. – just suspend judgement and savour the Proustian moment as Moses smells the soup: “My God,” he exclaims, “that’s chicken soup. This is the stuff my mother made for me when I was a kid! I must be a Jew too!” 2
Moses first “looks this way and that.” The peshat, the plain meaning, seems obvious: “would anybody see me if I intervened?” We can imagine how the word would have spread: a prince siding with a slave whose life was worth no more than the work that could be got out of them. The Nazis were not the first to have reduced human worth to the level of usefulness. When you have a cheap, inexhaustible supply of slaves, there’s no particular need to treat them decently: “plenty more where that one came from.”
Mythology about kings disguising themselves to go out among their people might be fine but they don’t usually kill their own people. Anyway, as we find out subsequently, Moses hadn’t disguised himself. Can we really imagine that an Egyptian prince would go out on his own and that the only actors on the stage were Moses, the slave and the taskmaster?
And there’s a difficulty with the Hebrew. “He looked this way and that,” we read, “and seeing ein ish, no one about…..” In older translations read “seeing that there was no man.” What was it that Moses saw? Presumably there were lots of people around but there was nobody prepared to be a human being. Moses ‘saw,’ he came to understand, that he was the only one there prepared to say “this is wrong” and to act on it.
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg reminds us, with her usual close reading of the text, that it says vayigdal Moshe, “Moses had grown up and went out to his kinsfolk. “His first significant act of maturity,” she says, “is an act of empathy with those who seem, physically, socially and existentially, so different from him.”3
This is Moses’ ‘conversion,’ when his newfound awareness of kinship with the slaves means he has to cross, has crossed, the boundary between oppressor and oppressed. Wherever he might have stood as an Egyptian prince, now he knows that he has to take his stand alongside the oppressed, and thereby sets the course for the remainder of his life. Interestingly, a midrash has him arguing with God, 40 years later, to let him enter the Promised Land. He enumerates all the ways he has been a faithful servant of God, dealt with rebellion and intransigence, Golden Calf and pleas to return to Egypt. Each time God agrees with him and says “yes, you’re right, you’ve had a tough time.” Finally, in exasperation, Moses asks “so why can’t I enter the Land?” to which God replies “have you forgotten? – you killed an Egyptian.”4
“He hid the Egyptian in the sand.” The Hebrew for ‘sand’ is chol, but chol also means ‘profane ’as in chol hamoed the intermediate, non-kodesh, days of a festival. One Chassidic commentary makes a nice pun on the word suggesting that “he smote the Egyptian in his heart”; that is to say, he divorced himself from Egyptian culture for all of it was chol, profane.5 A parallel to the comment about it being easier to get the Jews out of Egypt than Egypt out of the Jews.
In more-modern garb, the idea is reflected in Leo Baeck’s referring to the Jews as the great “no sayers” of history. They saw the amazing temples of Egypt but knew the idolatry that permitted the enslavement of a people; they saw the pyramids and knew of the cruelty involved in building them; they knew that behind the fine palaces lay oppression and corruption. We became and continue to be – when we live up to our highest ideals – those who have always said a resounding ‘no!’ to oppression, cruelty and all that is chol, ‘profane’ in life.
Usually, enslaved peoples eventually assimilate into the general population: they marry the local boys and girls, raise families, earn a living and forget that they were ever anything other than good Egyptians. The events set in motion by this one act of Moses were momentous indeed – and the Exodus was that final act of rejection, of ‘no-saying’ to everything that was splendid and glorious in Egyptian civilisation.
Maybe God always knew Moses would eventually come to ‘see’ those Hebrew slaves as his kinsfolk. For now he has to flee into the desert where he becomes a humble shepherd, marries, has children. God knows that it is time to light the Burning Bush and wait, knowing that Moses will eventually ‘see’ it, “turn aside to see this marvellous sight” 6 and so begin his journey with God and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Colin Eimer
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1971
1 Exodus 2:11-12
2 Marc Gellman, Does God have a big toe? Stories about stories in the Bible (Harper Collins, New York 1989) p67.
3 Aviva Gottlieb-Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture (Doubleday, New York 2001) p25
4 ‘Midrash Petirat Moshe’ in Eisenstein, Otsar HaMidrashim (New York 1915) part 2, p363
5 Itturei Torah, Vol 3, p23 – Meir Spira of Lublin
6 Exodus 3:3
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.