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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Sh'mot 5758
Exodus 1:1-6:1
January 17, 1998    19 Tevet 5758

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

I find the figure of Moses endlessly fascinating. He is the founder of Israel and its greatest prophet, a sculptor who works with human life, transforming a clan into a nation, a motley multitude into a polity of high moral order. Seized by God, he labors to complete the social vision first glimpsed by Abraham. As his ancestor abjured the religion of Mesopotamia, he rejects the religion of Egypt. In their stead, he voices the full scope of monotheism and lends it both cultic and political form. The measure of the man lies in the odds against him: the might of the Egyptian empire, the unheroic nature of a people impaired by slavery and his status as a stranger to Israelite society.

It is on the last of these impediments that I wish to dwell today. To be sure, great national leaders do on occasion come from the ranks of an outsider, witness the accomplishments of men like Napoleon, Disraeli and Herzl. But the obstacles in their path to the top are formidable. Despite the Torah's conspicuous lack of interest in Moses's upbringing in Pharaoh's palace, we should not discount the depth of his estrangement from his people. Indeed, who were his people? Hadn't the many years of exposure to the best of Egyptian society and culture obliterated from his mind any vestige of ancestral ties?

When millennia later in 1862 another Moses by the name of Hess published his epochal Zionist tract, Rome and Jerusalem, he readily confessed his return to his people from the alienating world of European socialism.

Here I am again, after twenty years of estrangement, in the midst of my people. I take part in its days of joy and sorrow, in its memories and hopes, its spiritual struggles within its own house, and among the civilized peoples in whose midst it lives, but with which, despite two thousand years of common life and effort, it cannot achieve complete unity. One thought which I believed I had extinguished forever within my breast is again vividly present to me: the thought of my nationality, inseparable from the heritage of my fathers and from the Holy Land — the eternal city, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and in the future brotherhood of all men (Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current>, p. 232).

But we tend not to associate such sentiments with Moses, the prince of Egypt, partly because the biblical narrative misleads us. His preordained destiny appears to preclude the possibility of an identity crisis. His rescue and naming by Pharaoh's daughter ("She named him Moses, explaining, 'I drew him out of the water'"—Exodus 2:10) foreshadows his life's task, and what is foreshadowed unfolds without resistance.

Yet the cryptic narrative betrays traces of existential struggle. Unlike his kinsfolk, Moses is totally assimilated. His name, language and mores are thoroughly Egyptian. This is precisely what makes him such an ideal figure to challenge Pharaoh. The Torah gives us no clue as to what might have prompted Moses to venture forth from the palace. The only indisputable fact is that Moses is not summoned by God as was Abraham. There is no equivalent to the command: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1)." Moreover, given his congenital inability to tolerate injustice, it might have been the obscenity of slavery that drew his attention rather than a tug of ethnicity.

A midrash with a contemporary ring quoted by Hess supports my argument for an undertow of ambivalence. At the end of his life, Moses tries to persuade God to let him enter the promised land. According to Rabbi Levi, Moses protests that God's punishment is unfair. "Lord of the Universe, the bones of Joseph (which I brought with me from Egypt) will enter the land, but I won't?" To which God responds: "The person who in his lifetime identified with the land of Israel will be buried there. And the one who did not, will not."

The midrash, as always, turns on a close reading of Scripture. When Moses flees to Midian to escape for having killed an Egyptian taskmaster, he must have identified himself as an Egyptian, otherwise the daughters of Reud would never have reported to their father, "An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock (Exodus 2:19)." In contrast, Joseph, who never concealed his identity, is referred to contemptuously by the spurned wife of Potiphar as, "The Hebrew slave (Genesis 39:17)." The perception of others refracts their self-identification, and Moses is ultimately denied the right to die in Israel because of his early equivocation.

Furthermore, I believe that Moses's prolonged inner struggle is the key to understanding his nearly repeated opposition to God's call at the burning bush. Revelation does not come out of the blue. The death of Pharaoh grants Moses a reprieve and rekindles his state of turmoil. Whether inspired by a sense of ethnicity or injustice, the plight of Israel beckons him. What inhibits him is not the awesome power of a new Pharaoh but the fear that Israel won't accept his leadership. As an outsider, Moses does not command its traditions and language. Hence his preoccupation with God's name when he approaches the Israelites. He must be able to authenticate himself. Nor was Moses's concern misplaced. One setback and the people turn on him. "May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers (Exodus 5:21)." Similarly, when Moses pleads that "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (Exodus 4:10), he is not describing a physical condition, but the fact that he is not fluent in the language of the Israelites and thus lacks the capacity to move their hearts and minds.

In the spirit of that interpretation, the midrash observes that by the time we come to Moses's final peroration in Deuteronomy, he has indeed become quite an orator. The opening verse, "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (Deuteronomy 1:1)," conveys the impression that Torah has cured his speech impediment. "For from the moment he acquired it, his tongue was healed and words began to pour forth," that is, he had at last become a bona fide insider.

In sum, Moses starts out as a hyphenated Jew. His strength is also his weakness. Nurtured in the court life of Egypt, he emerges bereft of any ideas about the life of his own people. He vacillates, unsure of being accepted, till overcome by the will of God, a resolutions that sends him into a war on two fronts, but also changes the course of history.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Sh'mot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.