Why was Moshe chosen?
Rabbi Yona Goodman
If Moshe were chosen as Israel's leader in our day and age, some fair governance organization or another would surely have taken the matter of his dubious qualifications to court. They would have asked where he had studied Torah and who his rabbis were – important details the Torah has neglected to mention. But on a more serious note, we might have expected the Torah to list the reasons why Moshe was selected to lead Israel, why no prophet like him has ever arisen in Israel since and what made him worthy of communicating the eternal Torah to the Bnei Israel. If Noah was described as "righteous" and "flawless", we would expect the text to offer a similar account of our greatest leader's qualities. Instead, for no apparent reason, one fine day G-d appears before Moshe in the burning bush and gives him the honorable task of redeeming Israel from slavery – a salvation that will serve as the prototype for the freeing of all slaves to this very day.
But although the Torah does not tell us where Moshe went to Heder, it does tell us why he was the man for the job by recounting three incidents that reveal his character before being sent on his Godly mission. Let us take a look at them and see how each story contributes to our understanding of his powerful personality.
In the first story, Moshe wanders outside the palace and sees and Egyptian strike down an Israelite: "וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם" – "When Moshe was grown, he went out to his brothers and looked on their burdens". This description in itself is rather odd. Moshe grew up in the palace since infanthood. His friends were Egyptian, whereas the Jews were considered property – slaves that may be beaten. Why would he be surprised at the sight? This shows you that Moshe had very high morals, and could not accept his peers' and friends' behavior and culture as normative. When he is described as being "grown", this does not refer to physical growth, but to the spiritual kind. It is obvious that he left the palace in order to meet others, why does the Torah say "ויצא" – "he went out"? Because he stepped outside the corrupt culture that surrounded him; he left the wrongful norms that encompassed him behind, and realized that these slaves were, in fact, "his brothers". What he saw took place dozens of times a day: "אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו" – "an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brothers", but instead of associating himself with the strong party, he sympathizes with the weak, seeing the latter as his "brother". This is the first of the three stories that teach us why Moshe was the right leader for Bnei Israel.
In the second tale, Moshe sees "שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים" – "two men of the Hebrews striving together". This is one step further. Many Jews would react when faced with anti-Semitism (as in the first story). Once Jews are attacked, their Jewish Neshama calls out and sympathizes, but they may not be so moved at the sight of a Jew being attacked by his own kind. And indeed, the two Israelites ask him: "מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ" – "Who made you a prince and judge over us?", a logical question that would have made others shrug their shoulders and move on. But Moshe is not like that. Not only does he fight for justice when non-Jews attack Jews, he also reacts when the Jews wrong one another. This is the kind of man worthy of leading Israel.
The third and final incident depicted before Moshe is chosen to be Israel's leader reveals his moral side in all its glory. Being a fighter for justice, Moshe is forced to flee. He forfeits his future and friends, his country and the grandeur he was guaranteed in Pharaoh's palace, where he was raised as the King's own son. He becomes a refugee, exiled, wandering through the desert for many months, left to ponder his destiny and reflect on what interfering in others' business has reduced him to. The obvious conclusion would have been to stop fighting others' battles and looking for justice, and focus on taking care of himself. What's more, he must hide from Pharaoh's men and lay low in the new land he arrives at.
But in this third story the greatness of his high morals is accentuated. Moshe, the refugee in the foreign land, who paid a high price for being sensitive to others' suffering and injustice and must now hide, sees non-Jews (the shepherds of Midian) bullying non-Jews (Jethro's daughters). Why is this any of his business? Because he believes in Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place, and must therefore publicly seek justice for all mankind, not only for his brothers, the Jews.
This act of his leads him to flee to the desert once more, where he sees the burning bush and is chosen as Israel's leader.
So these were the three stories that the Torah uses to show us why Moshe was chosen to lead the Bnei Israel; why he was entitled "Rabbeinu" – "our Teacher/Rabbi".
The Midrash adds a fourth story, unique in its own way. While herding sheep in the desert, one of Moshe's little lambs runs off. He runs after it and finds it has been looking for water. Moshe then takes pity on the small creature, and realizing it is thirsty and exhausted, carries it in his arms all the way back to the herd. At this point, G-d reveals Himself to Moshe. Someone who is sensitive and compassionate shows these traits in every aspect of his life. Moshe was thus chosen to lead the Bnei Israel out of Egypt and show them the right way. He is our Teacher and Rabbi, now all that remains to be seen, is whether we are his Talmidim – pupils.
Rabbi Yona Goodman is the Director of the "Institute for Education and Faith in our Days" in Orot Israel College of Education. Goodman studied in a Hesder yeshiva and served in the Israeli army as a tank commander. He is the former director general of the national Bnei Akiva movement in Israel.
Rabbi Goodman gives courses for the Israeli board of education to high school principals, high school supervisors and others about ways to enhance Jewish and Zionist values in the lives of our children. He is a member on the board of directors of the international movement of Religious Zionist Kollels (Torah MiTzion).