Foundation for Leadership: the Childhood of Moses

Leslie Levine, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

As a newborn, Moses is given by Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, back to his mother Yocheved to be nursed.  He is returned later on to Bitya, who then names him.  After a period of time in the royal household, Moses emerges as an adult who identifies strongly with the Hebrew slaves, calling them his brethren.  While there are few details in Exodus about Moses’ childhood, the passages we do have reveal that Moses was exposed to two very different environments, each of which contributed greatly to his development as a leader, preparing him for his pivotal role in the years to come.

Moses likely spent most of his pre-adolescence being raised by his parents.   While many interpretations of Exodus 2:9-10 conclude that Moses was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter immediately after having been weaned, which would have been at about 2-3 years of age for a male child at that time, the passage does not actually support this conclusion.  Rather, the sequence suggests that the child was nursed, then grew up, and only then was given up to and named by Bitya.  This contrasts to, for example, Genesis 21:8, where the same word for “grew up” is followed by “and was weaned”, immediately followed by the description of an event triggered by the weaning.

Why does the Torah repeat the word וַיִּגְדַּל, meaning ”grew up”, first referring to the child prior to being returned to Bitya, and then referring to Moses by name?  The medieval French commentator Rashi quotes Judah, son of Rabbi Ilai, who said that the first use (Ex. 2:10) of the term “grew up” was Moses’ growth in stature, and the second (Ex. 2:11) was his growth in greatness, as shown by Pharaoh’s eventually appointing him overseer of the royal household.  Moses’ parents, Yocheved and Amram, raised him for the most formative years of his childhood, which Midrashim find to have been for about his first 7-12 years.

Moses emerged as an adult recognizing the Hebrew slaves as his kin, evidence of the weighty influence of his years with his parents.  His first act upon leaving the royal household was to slay an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.   It is his years as a prince that form the basis for his feeling empowered and entitled to intervene against the Hebrews’ oppression and struggles.     The influences to which Moses would have been exposed in Pharaoh’s household would have included  being part of the highest caste of Egyptian society, as well as an excellent education including public speaking and military training.

Moses matured from infant to adult in two extended periods of time.  The first was spent with his parents, who imparted to him their faith and identity as Hebrews.   The second was an adolescence during which he was an heir to the throne. He was highly educated, privileged and indoctrinated into a sense of power and authority.   The combination of the boy’s upbringing in these two very different environments instilled in him a wide range of beliefs, sometimes contradictory, and skills.  The result was a young man accustomed to informed decision making, strong in his belief system and prepared to assume the role of leader of his people.

To me, the story emphasizes the pivotal role that a child’s early years with his parents plays in the formation of his identity and value system.


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