The Salad Days of Moses: Parsha Shemote

​I like Moses a lot. I commiserate with him: how can one be “the humblest of men” but at the same time, lead a people so fractious, argumentative, and independent-minded as us Jews? And yet, that was his life’s mission: self-destructively workaholic, misogynistic more than often, and not much of a father (his two sons are mere names, and they quickly vanish into history), but known to all of us as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses, our Rabbi, our teacher. Over years of reading andchanting Torah, constantly striving to find something new to say about him, I have grown very close to Moses, warts and all. We rabbis need to stick together.

​In this parsha/Torah reading, we find Moses during his salad days, when his world was young and fair. Cast adrift by his loving and fearful mother, Yocheved, during theJewish-boy-baby-drowning campaign of fearful Pharaoh, his devoted elder sister, Miriam, follows his wicker basket downstream on the Nile, and speaks right up to the royal princess of Egypt when her majesty discovers and wishes to adopt the baby, boldly offering Yocheved as a wetnurse.

We can only speculate about Moses’s upbringing in the Pharaoh’s palace, and the inevitable tension there must have been between the ministrations of the princess, his adoptive mother, and those of Yocheved, his natural mother: for the rest of his life, he was to have negative issues about women, certainly with powerful women. These certainly influenced his notions about the role of females in Judaism and in the world, until he met the daughters of Tselofechad (Num. 27:6-8), whose right of inheritance he championed. As for fathers, his ownnon-relationship with natural father Amram and adoptive grandpa Pharaoh must have been distant, if it existed at all. We know this from the true meaning of his name: in the Egyptian world where leaders were known as Ramses (son of Ra, the sun-god) or Thutmose (son of Thut, god of writing and wisdom), Moses’s name translates as “Son of whom?” since his natural father was unknown to the Egyptians (The linguistic wordplay in Ex. 2:10 suggesting that his name means “drawn out of the water” is a later Hebraic invention.).

​Here we find all the elements of Moses’s later career as chief of the prophets, who spoke with God on a higher level than Isaiah or Jeremiah ever could aspire: his killing the Egyptian taskmaster as the first blow in the battle for Israelite freedom; his deed being disparaged by his later detractors, Datan and Aviram; his flight to Midian, there to become son-in-law to Yitro, whom Jewish tradition acclaims as one of the first Jews-by-choice, and his vision of the burning bush—a prophecy both magnificent (the Sovereign of the Universe contained within a mere bush) and humble (it was only a thornbush, after all). Protesting his unsuitability for the job of redeemer from slavery, Moses is also notable for resisting God’s call to prophecy, thereby setting a peculiar standard for future Jewish seers (e.g., Jonah). Prophet and shepherd, stammerer and orator, a man partly Egyptian but nascently Jewish—Moses remains the beau ideal for Jewish leaders in all times and all places, as he clings to God’s coattails and waits for instructions.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has aShabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance

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