Exile, Alienation and the Jewish Mission
When a man is in his place, everyone knows him, and respects him according to his worth and according to the rank of his forbears. He, too, is familiar with his surroundings, knowing what he should say and what he should not say, what he should do and what he should not do. Once uprooted from his landscape, a man is at a loss, bewildered and perplexed. (Haim Sabato, Aleppo Tales)
In the last chapter, we explored the unusual self-awareness that Moshe brought into his first set of interviews with God. Of course, this perspective did not appear in a vacuum – as with everyone, Moshe was shaped by his life experience. In this chapter we will look at part of this experience, which will both resemble and yet be at variance with many other Biblical Jewish leaders. Looking at Moshe’s early life, we find a fascinating paradox: The greatest Jew to walk the face of the earth spent his childhood and youth in a completely non-Jewish culture. This forges the great irony that, as opposed to all the other Jews whom the Midrash praises for preserving their Jewish identities through keeping their Israelite names, language and dress, (1) young Moshe’s name, (2) language and certainly mode of dress were all Egyptian.
Various commentators have noticed this and given explanations for the anomaly. Among them, the great nineteenth century commentator, Malbim, (3) writes that the royal court of Egypt was the best place for Moshe to acquire the characteristics and abilities that he would need to become the political and military leader of the Jewish people. This approach implies that had there been a Jewish monarch and court from which to learn, it would have been preferable for Moshe to avoid the court of Pharaoh. In other words, Moshe’s apprenticeship in a foreign culture was due to the lack of a better option. But there is another, more fundamental reason for Moshe’s bicultural upbringing, which sees Moshe’s youth in a foreign court as a necessary part of his formation as the prime Jewish leader and recipient of the Torah. In order to fully appreciate this position, we will first want to compare Moshe’s early life to the early life of one of his great predecessors.
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1 Vayikra Rabba 32:5. Though the extant versions of this midrash do not include clothing, various early commentators mention it, suggesting the existence of such a version.
2 See Ibn Ezra, R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, Malbim and R. Aryeh Kaplan (Shemot 2:10) on this point.
3 On Shemot 2:10.
Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus, written by Rabbi Francis Nataf and published by Urim Publications in 2010.
This chapter was excerpted with permission by the author.