Parshat Shemot 4

“And the woman conceived and she gave birth. And she saw that the child was good and she hid him for three months.” (Shemot 2:2)

Parents often sense that their children come preprogrammed. Children seem to be predisposed to certain behaviors and attitudes. Is this perception accurate? Are we capable of molding our children? To what extent can we influence their development? This week’s parasha provides some insight into this issue.

One of the topics discussed in this week’s parasha is Moshe’s early development. Moshe was born during a period of severe persecution. Paroh had decreed that all male babies born to Bnai Yisrael should be drowned. Our pasuk tells us that Moshe’s parents saw that their child was good and decided to take desperate steps to save his life. Our Sages ask two questions on this passage. First, the passage tells us that Moshe’s parents saw that he was good. The Torah does not waste words on the obvious. Virtually, every parent thinks his or her baby is beautiful. Even if others think the infant has been a little shortchanged in natural beauty, this is rarely the perception of the baby’s parents. So, what is the point that the Torah is making in telling us the Moshe’s parent believed him to be beautiful?

Second, the Torah implies that because Moshe’s parents were so moved by his goodness they decided to hide him. Does this mean that other parents who were not so moved willingly offered their children to the Egyptians for execution? Certainly, this is not the case! There is no doubt that all parents did their best to try to save their newborns from the Egyptians!

Nachmanides raises and answers both of these questions. He explains that the Chumash does not intend to tell us that Moshe’s parents were impressed with his beauty in the same manner as other parents. In the case of other parents, this impression is based on the internal feelings of the parents. Their love for their offspring generates their conviction in the beauty of the child. As we have pointed out, because the source of the judgment is internal, it may have no objective basis in the external reality of the child’s actual appearance. In contrast, Moshe’s parents – Amram and Yocheved – based their evaluation of Moshe’s goodness on objective evidence. The Torah tells us that they saw he was good. The Torah is telling us that they saw objective evidence. The Chumash is not interested in revealing the exact nature of this evidence. Our Sages suggest various possibilities. For example, in Tractate Sotah, the Sages suggest the Miryam – Moshe sister – received a prophecy that Moshe would save Bnai Yisrael.

Nachmanides further explains that although all parents must have tried to save their newborns from the Egyptians, Amram and Yocheved resorted to desperate measures. For example, they attempted to hide Moshe in the river. They were moved to resort to these schemes because they knew that Moshe was special. Therefore, they had reason to hope that Hashem would intervene and cause these measures to succeed.[1]

Nachmanides’ insight not only explains our passage but it also answers other questions on our parasha.

“And the child matured and she brought him to the daughter of Paroh and she was a son to her. And she named him Moshe – for from the water I pulled him.” (Shemot 2:10)

The daughter of Paroh rescues the child from the river. She adopts the child as a son. She names him Moshe. This name is derived from the phrase, “I drew him from the water.” This name – Moshe – is name by which the child will be known throughout the Torah. Did not Moshe’s parents provide him with a name? Why is Moshe known by the name that he received form the daughter of Paroh and not by the name he received from his true parents?

Our Sages tell us that Moshe’s parents did give him a name. It was either Tov or Tuvya.[2] Both names are derived from the word tov – good – and refer to Moshe’s parents’ initial impressions of their child.

Now that we know Moshe’s original name, we can understand its replacement. The initial name refers to the Amram’s and Yocheved’s recognition that their child was special and different. This recognition was the basis for their unusual plan to save him. Paroh’s daughter renamed the child Moshe. Apparently, she chose this name because her experience of saving the child from the river created a maternal bond. Because of this bond, she adopted the child and he was raised as a prince in the home of Paroh. So, Amram’s and Yocheved’s desperate plan succeeded wonderfully. Not only was Moshe saved, he was rescued from bondage and raised as royalty. This confirmed Amram’s and Yocheved’s conclusion that the boy was special and that Hashem’s providence would work on his behalf. To Paroh’s daughter the name Moshe represented her bond to the child. But to the reader of the incident the name alludes to the act of providence that forged a bond between a condemned infant and a princess. The name Moshe is a specific expression of the providence represented by the name Tov. So, the Torah did not replace the infant’s original name with a completely new name. Instead, it expanded on the theme of original name with a new name that communicated the same idea of providence over the child but with far more detail.

IN short, the Torah is telling us that it was part of this providential plan that Moshe grow and mature in the house of Paroh. Why was this important?

“And it was in those days and Moshe matured. And he went out to his brethren and he saw them in their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew from among his brothers.” (Shemot 2:11)

Moshe matures and he investigates the condition of his brothers – the Hebrews. He observes an Egyptian man persecuting a Hebrew. Our Sages note that the passage opens by telling us that Moshe had matured. The previous passage opened with the same phrase. Each phrase refers to a different periods in his life. Yet, each describes Moshe as mature at that moment. At which point did Moshe actually become mature?

Nachmanides explains that maturity occurs in stages. In the prior passage the Torah is telling us that Moshe had reached an adequate level of maturity to be brought to live with the daughter of Paroh. In our passage, Moshe has further matured. He is now interested in his brothers and their travails.[3]

This is a simple and obvious explanation of the passage. However, Rashi offers an alternative explanation. Rashi comments that the first passage refers to physical development. When Moshe was physically mature, he was brought to the daughter of Paroh. However, he was not yet prepared to assume responsibility as a member of the royal household. Our passage tells us that Moshe has matured emotionally and was now ready for responsibility. He had been appointed to supervise Paroh’s household.[4]

Rashi’s explanation is not unreasonable. However, it seems much more speculative than the simpler explanation offered by Nachmanides. Why does Rashi prefer his explanation over the more obvious interpretation?

“And he looked in each direction and saw that there was no one there. And he struck the Egyptian and he hid him in the sand.” (Shemot 2:12)

Moshe decides he must save his brother from the Egyptian. He will have to kill the Egyptian. But Moshe does not act impulsively or rashly. First, he carefully inspects whether he is being observed. Once he is certain that he is alone, he kills the Egyptian and hides his body.

The Torah describes in detail Moshe’s precautions to avoid detection. Nonetheless, in the next passages Moshe discovers that he was observed. And these observers are eager to inform against him. Moshe realizes that he must flee Egypt.

What is the message in this juxtaposition? What does the Torah tell us by juxtaposing a description of Moshe’s precautions with his discovery?

Perhaps, the Torah is pointing out that Moshe was not discovered because he was impulsive or careless. On the contrary, Moshe took every possible precaution. Nonetheless, he was discovered. The implication is that providence was again at work. Providence decreed that Moshe was raised in Paroh’s home. Providence now decreed that he leave that home. Why was it now time to leave?

Let us return to an earlier question. Why was it important for Moshe to be raised in Paroh’s house? Gershonides explains that this upbringing helped prepare Moshe for his future mission. Egypt was the most advanced culture of its time. The Egyptians had the most advanced knowledge of science. In Paroh’s home Moshe would learn from the most accomplished of Egypt’s scholars. He would be exposed to the most advanced thinking of the age. This would help prepare him intellectually for his role as leader of Bnai Yisrael. However, he would also prepare emotionally. In Paroh’s home he developed as a free person and as a member of the royal family. Paroh was familiar to him. This relationship would be invaluable. Paroh would not be able to overawe Moshe. Moshe would be able to stand up to Paroh.[5]

However, Moshe’s development in this environment also posed a danger. Moshe could forget his origins. He was in danger of becoming an Egyptian. The bond between Moshe and his adopted family had to be severed at the appropriate moment – after Moshe had gleaned from the environment the maximum benefit but before he assimilated. According to Rashi, Moshe appointment over the royal household was this moment. Once Moshe assumed a position of authority, his identity was endangered. At that moment, providence again intervened to break the bonds between Moshe and the royal family.

In other words, Rashi is suggesting that Moshe must have matured in some way that precipitated Hashem’s intervention and Moshe flight. He suggests that the maturity that Moshe reached was in his position as a member of the household. Rashi contends that once we interpret Moshe’s maturity in this way, we can appreciate the connection between Moshe’s maturity and the crisis that immediately follows and culminates in Moshe’s flight.

The Torah position on the importance of environment upon children is very clear. The Torah maintains that these influences are crucial and help shape the personality of the child. The Torah’s account of Moshe’s early life describes Hashem interfering with natural events in order to carefully shape this environment and then reshape it.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:2.

[2] Mesechet Sotah 12a.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:11.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 2:11.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 6-7.

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