Moshe was arguably the greatest man to ever live. He scaled the heavens and split the seas. He liberated a nation of slaves and taught them about a God they couldn’t visualize but whose will they could study. For 40 years he piloted a rebellious nation throughout a barren desert on their way to a golden land. How does a man like Moshe develop? Perhaps his life—particularly the chapter before he is chosen by God—can provide clues for our own religious growth.
Moshe’s birth is preceded by a seemingly “standard” story about the marriage of his parents: A man from the house of Levi marries a woman from the same tribe and together they birth Moshe. We aren’t informed of the names of his parents, and this anonymity emphasizes that Moshe didn’t inherit his position because of his prestigious parents; we don’t even know their names! By and large, with some exceptions, Judaism aspires to a system of meritocracy where leaders earn their position, rather than receiving it through “yichus.” Though the “real world” doesn’t always operate in this manner, it is certainly the ideal.
Additionally, the attention paid to Moshe’s birth and his nursing as an infant stresses the fact that the “greatest prophet” was born through natural means. He was drawn from a water-soaked cradle and raised by multiple “mothers.” This story debunks any absurdity about prophets being supernaturally born. Born through natural means and without celebrity, Moshe develops into the greatest man to ever bestride our planet.
How does he develop into a great prophet? In our era, we no longer enjoy the experience of prophecy, but Moshe’s development certainly can inspire our own growth. The Rambam (in his philosophical sefer known as Moreh Nevuchim) affirms that God doesn’t indiscriminately or arbitrarily select prophets. Human beings must first refine their own moral character, develop their intellect and heighten their religious sensibility so that they become suited for prophecy. God then chooses from among these “prophetically suited” candidates. Moshe’s “journey to prophecy” can be followed even by human beings who will never achieve actual prophecy. His road to prophecy can help us navigate our own journey to religious growth.
Before he is selected at the burning bush, Moshe displays four different traits:
1. Sympathy With Human Suffering
Moshe forays out of his comfortable palace and witnesses human suffering. Encountering an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave, he protects the victim by neutralizing the attacker. It is not altogether clear that, at this point, Moshe was even aware of his Jewish identity. Nonetheless, he intervenes on behalf of a “person” being victimized. At a later stage, upon arriving in Midyan and attempting to escape arrest, Moshe once again intercedes—even at great personal cost; as a fugitive, it is certainly in his best interest to maintain a low profile and ignore this local quarrel. Yet he can’t help but sympathize with these non-Jewish but defenseless girls and shields them from abusive herdsmen. Moshe is chosen because he sympathizes with human suffering and rails against injustice even when not personally advantageous or politically correct.
It is fair to ask whether parts of the Jewish community have abandoned this mission. In Israel, the agenda of social justice and economic equality has been “adopted” by secular Israelis for whom an agenda of religion or one of settling the Land of Israel is, unfortunately, irrelevant. Sadly, and in some ways in reaction to “secular appropriation,” many religious Jews in Israel pay little interest to the “social agenda.” A similar trend has evolved in the Jewish world even outside the State of Israel. Many non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have pivoted themselves upon agendas of socio-economic equality and protection of vulnerable members of society. This has caused some, in Orthodox circles, to recoil from these important programs. Moshe’s “rise” reminds us all that, at the heart of Jewish identity, lies concern and sympathy for victims of injustice. Even if we don’t channel resources toward the redressing of injustice, we certainly cannot remain callous or unfeeling when victimization occurs or when humans suffer.
2. A Simple Desert Life
Moshe begins his career by shepherding his father-in law’s sheep, thereby following the careers of our Avot who, in Sefer Bereishit, also tended to flocks. Shepherds lead very simple rural lives devoid of the comforts and luxuries of the city. Ironically, Moshe first hears the voice of God in this barren desert and not in the more luxurious palace in which he was reared.
Our modern world has become very sophisticated, comfortable and cultured. What price do we all pay for sophistication? Do we relinquish natural purity and wholesomeness through exposure to social vanity and the aggressive pursuit of wealth and reputation? By distancing himself from palace life and palace intrigue, Moshe receives his first prophecy. Spiritual health is dependent upon striking a balance between our desire for sophistication and “progress” and the retention of common and humble innocence. We run the risk of becoming too sophisticated and too “plastic,” unable to express or even sense authentic passion or emotion.
3. Moshe Works Hard
A shepherd lives a demanding life with grueling schedules and taxing workloads. In defending against Lavan’s false allegations, Yaakov emphasizes that shepherds work day and night and suffer through relentless and extreme weather conditions. Hard work generally refines our character, builds selflessness, and strengthens our discipline. For these reasons, both the desert Mishkan as well as the ultimate Beit Hamikdash were crafted by human industry rather than prefabricated by God. God’s presence only descended to the human realm through intense labor and Moshe only received his prophecy after steering cattle through the desert. In a world of “ease” and “convenience,” Moshe’s early career should remind us of the value of toil and even struggle. We have all met people about whom it could be said that it would have been beneficial had they struggled earlier in life.
4. Moshe’s Curiosity
Moshe observes an atypical phenomenon: a bush beset by fire but not devoured. Less-curious people may have scuttled along, barely noticing this wonder or disinterested in exploring this anomaly. Moshe deliberately diverts to better “see into the life of things” and decipher this mystery. Realizing that something deeper lies beneath the surface, he examines the shrubbery and hears the voice of God. Perhaps Moshe also senses a celestial message latent in this fire that obviously stems from a different realm.
Intellectual curiosity—especially in today’s world—can be tricky. We enjoy such easy access to a range of toxic information and media. It is crucial that we draw “red lines in the sand” and curb our curiosity to preserve our purity. However, there is also a danger of becoming too disinterested and too shallow. If we had passed a lowly burning bush, would we be too busy to take notice? If we took notice, would we be too lazy to explore and analyze? Would we “miss” the voice or God because we don’t sufficiently dig beneath the surface of our lives?
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.