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Parashat Shemot

January 6, 2010

By Rabbi Allen Darnov

“When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk” (Exod 2:11). This verse has generally been understood to denote that Moses, aware of his Hebrew identity, sympathetically goes out to investigate the suffering of his oppressed kinsmen in Egypt.

When might Moses have learned that he was a Hebrew? Moshe Greenberg believes that Moses remained at home with his mother beyond the period of weaning (cf. Gen 21:8), and that he was therefore old enough to acquire a Hebrew identity from his family (Understanding Exodus, p. 42). Nachmanides explains that Pharaoh’s court “told him he was Jewish (Yehudi) and he therefore desired to see them because they were his kinsmen” (Nachmanides to Exod 2:11).

However, it is also possible to read Exod 2:11 otherwise, that Moses does not have knowledge of his Hebrew roots, and so he does not know the Hebrew slaves are his kinsmen when he goes out to them. This is the reading of Ibn Ezra who interprets “kinsmen” in v.11 as “Egyptians.” Ibn Ezra apparently believes that Moses leaves the palace to investigate the general conditions of life in Egypt.

Under this assumption, the phrase (occurring twice in v.11) reads as theatrical irony: the narrator and the reader know Moses is related to the Hebrew slaves, but Moses himself does not know it. Irony of this type occurs in many biblical scenes. In the Joseph story, Joseph’s brothers do not know they stand before Joseph in Egypt even though the narrator tells us, “They made their way down to Egypt, where they presented themselves to Joseph(Gen 43:15). In the story of Samson’s birth, Samson’s father does not know he speaks to an angel, though the narrator states, “Manoah said to the angel of the Lord…” (13:15, 17).

Moses’s true knowledge of his background greatly depends upon interpreting the stubborn ambiguity behind the words “and the child grew and was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter” (Exod 2:11). At what age did Moses leave his mother and go to live at court? Was he old enough for his mother to have taught him that he was a Hebrew? And if not, did he maintain contact with his family while he was under court tutelage? Did the Egyptian court inform Moses of his natural kinsfolk? Moses may have learned of his Hebrew identity at any one of several stages in his early years, or not at all.

Archeology cannot help us in this matter. We know some historical details about the customs of wet nursing in the ancient world. We also know some particulars about Semites educated at the pharaonic court in New Kingdom times. But nothing of this knowledge can be applied with certainty to Moses’s case.

What are the implications of this question, regarding whether Moses knew he himself was of the Hebrews when he went out to the Hebrews? The question speaks to Moses’s motivation in venturing out to see the slaves of Egypt. We can understand that motivation in at least two ways.

If Moses knows that he is of Hebrew stock, then perhaps he is fired by personal devotion to his people. The stories of Exodus 2 then prompt us to admire Moses for loyalty and maintaining his personal attachment to his people, history and covenant. Alternatively, if he is unaware of his background, Moses may go out to the slaves because of devotion to humanity in general, and his abhorrence of oppression against all people. In a few more verses, Moses will rise to the defense of strangers when he defends the Midianite girls at a well (v. 17). He is therefore certainly capable of empathy for humanity in general.

The maxim that “All Israel are responsible for one another” stands as a key component, if not the key component, of Torah and Jewish tradition. Yet we can also read Torah as commanding the people Israel that its central mission is that of service to all humanity. For both points of view, Moses serves as our role model.


Rabbi Allen Darnov is the rabbi of the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley, New York, and co-founder with his wife, Cantor Avima Darnov, of The Hebrew Corner, LLC, in Marlboro, New Jersey. He has been on the part-time faculty of AJR for many years and has enjoyed every minute of it.