Moses, born in perilous circumstances, defied the odds and grew up under Pharaoh’s nose, likely with a silver spoon in his mouth. Moses was not subject to the cruelties of the great big world outside the inner circle of Egyptian nobility. He likely had the finest education available in those times and grew up in a pure Egyptian culture.
Moses nevertheless knew of his Hebrew heritage. He may have maintained connection to his birth mother who kept him until he was weaned, or he may have been informed by the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him. But until adulthood it seems that Moses did not engage with his Hebrew brethren. Once he grew up, however, Moses ventured out.
“And it was in those days and Moses grew up, and he went out to his brethren and looked upon their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way and saw that there was no man, and he smote the Egyptian, hiding him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)
In what appears to be his first foray out among his Hebrew brethren Moses encountered a situation in which he chose to intervene. Moses could have ignored this incident. He didn’t have to entangle himself in the politics and dysfunction of slave-master relationships. But his passion for justice would not allow him to ignore the altercation. Already from his first venture among his people he seemed destined for leadership. Moses could not stand by as an injustice was perpetrated. He could not allow one man to bully another, He would not see the vulnerable taken advantage of. At that moment the potential of Moses was actualized.
But there is more at play here. This is more than a question of standing up for the downtrodden, supporting the underdog. Moses was choosing sides, forming his identity. Until this point Moses straddled the fence, maintaining his Hebrew affiliation while immersed in Egyptian culture. Maybe he thought he could have it both ways, have his cake and eat it like we pretend to do. But now Moses was forced to choose. Ignore the incident and he places himself firmly on the Egyptian side, abandoning his Hebrew heritage entirely. Intervene, and he effectively declares himself a Hebrew, a non-Egyptian. This was a pivotal moment for Moses. It was the crossroads at which his young identity would be defined.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU kosher division, notes that the verse itself reflects this tension that Moses felt. “And he looked this way and that way, and he saw there was no man…” Moses looked at his Egyptian upbringing, and he looked at his Hebrew heritage. The Egyptian taskmaster represented the society in which Moses lived, its values and lifestyle. The cowering slave represented his kin, his biological family. He looked from one to the other and he saw that he could not maintain both in earnest. “There was no man.” Trying to juggle both was impossible, it would leave him bereft of any identity, he would be nobody. Moses made a choice, taking his first step on the path to God, leadership and the redemption of his people.
Ultimately Moses could not shed his Egyptian identity entirely. He fled to Midian, where he again encountered the vulnerable being taken advantage of by the strong. He rescued the daughters of Jethro from their antagonists, watering their flocks. When they returned home they reported that “an Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds.” Moses was labelled as an Egyptian man by those who encountered him, and this is recorded by the Torah for eternity, underscoring for us the difficulty in shedding one’s past. This is in contradistinction to Joseph. Sold to Egypt while yet a lad, suffering through slavery and imprisonment, Joseph was seen by others not as an Egyptian but as a Hebrew. After 12 years in Egypt Pharaoh’s dreams reminded the wine-server of Joseph, and he told Pharaoh of the “Hebrew lad, a slave to the Captain of the guard…” The Midrash teaches that because Joseph identified as a Hebrew, even while immersed in the Egyptian culture, he merited to be buried in the Holy land. His bones were carried up by the people as they left Egypt. Moses, on the other hand, is identified by the verse as an Egyptian man. Even after leaving Egypt he carried with him that persona, which led others to define him as Egyptian. Although he personally resolved to identify with his brethren, the Egyptian culture had a very strong hold on Moses. Because of that he did not merit to be buried in Israel. Unlike Joseph, Moses remains buried in the wilderness, denied from entering the Promised Land even after death.