Parshat Shemot: Moses' Upbringing

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

Why was Moses chosen as leader?

The second chapter of Shemot tells the dramatic story of Moses’ birth, upbringing, and activism. It also perhaps serves as an introduction to Moses’ encounter with the Angel of God at the Burning Bush, where Moses was appointed by God to lead the Jewish People, being instructed to “take My people the Children of Israel out of Egypt” (3:10).

Yet why was Moses chosen to be the leader the Jewish People? Does the account of chapter 2 provide any reasons for why he was selected?

The second half of the chapter relates how Moses struck down an Egyptian taskmaster who was brutally beating a Jew (2:11-12). Then that he confronted a Jewish person who was about to assault his fellow (2:13). Thirdly, that he stood up for the daughters of Jethro, who came to draw water for their father’s flock at a well only to be confronted by a band of shepherds who drove them away. Moses “got up and saved them and watered their sheep” (2:16-17). All these actions were fraught with danger, yet Moses’ sense of justice and compassion compelled him to act nevertheless.

Thus, according to the simple understanding of the text, it seems obvious why Moses was chosen as leader of the Jewish People. Namely, due to his sense of justice and compassion, and for actively standing up for the oppressed and downtrodden, regardless of race or creed.[1] Such is perhaps the critical attribute required of a leader.[2]

The first half of the chapter may also shed further light on Moses’ subsequent selection as leader, explaining how Moses acquired the traits of kindness and compassion in the first place.

Approach 1: Moses was raised as an Egyptian

According to one school of thought, chapter 2 charts a key transition in Moses’ life. Moses, it is advanced, grew up fully imbibed in Egyptian culture, being raised and educated in the royal palace, even cradled and coddled by Pharaoh himself.[3] It was only upon reaching adulthood that Moses was informed that he was a Jew. Only then did he leave the confines of the royal court, desiring to meet his own people. He then witnessed the Jewish People’s oppressive enslavement and sought to relieve them: That, “and it happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens” (2:11).[4] Perhaps, according to this interpretation, Moses’ sense of affinity and compassion, the traits that would subsequently mark him out as leader, were formed only at this moment, after Moses had reached adulthood and only upon seeing the distress of his fellow, enslaved Jews.

Approach 2: Moses was raised as a Jew and as an outsider

However, there is contrasting po‎sition, which views Moses’ upbringing and education entirely differently. This approach comes to light upon focusing on the first half of chapter 2, which tells of Moses’ early childhood, and could further be employed to suggest that Moses gained his character traits of mercy and compassion at a far earlier age.

From his birth Moses was vulnerable and in danger, his life threatened by Pharaoh’s decree to drown every Jewish son that was born in the river. However, in defiance of this, Moses’ mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, and perhaps her hand-maiden all placed their lives at risk in order to rescue him and bring him up (2:1-9).[5] Arguably, Moses knew about the compassion bestowed upon him by those people, who valiantly risked their lives and went against the norm in order to save him. He was aware that he was saved and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, who boldly went against both her father’s edict and the general Egyptian population’s fervent hatred of the Jews at the time.[6] Moses realised that his name reflected both this kind act of salvation and, significantly, that he was not a born Egyptian![7] Furthermore, he was nursed and educated in his infancy by his own Jewish mother.[8] Later, after Moses had struck down the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Jew, Pharaoh sought to kill him, perhaps not the normal response of a empathetic ‘grandfather figure’ to an adopted member of his family. The above all indicate that Moses was never accepted within Pharaoh’s household, and always considered himself and was perceived within the palace as an outsider. Moses was educated as a Jew and always saw himself as such. He grew up a stranger within Pharaoh’s palace. The above also explains where Moses learnt to be selflessly kind and compassionate, namely, from people who acted so towards him in his early years, saving his life and bringing him up. 

In summary, it was perhaps through Moses’ own experience and self-perception as an outsider that made him later act in the way he did, empathising with and advocating the cause of those who were themselves estranged: The downtrodden and oppressed. Furthermore, perhaps it was also through recognising and appreciating the selfless kindness and compassion shown to him by his mother, sister, and the daughter of Pharaoh during his childhood, when he was most vulnerable and in danger, that led him to adopt those same traits himself. Characteristics that he then later heroically displayed, marking him out to be the leader of the Jewish People.


[1] On Moses' constant concern for the oppressed see also Seforno, 2:10, 11, 17; Commentary on the Torah of Rabbi Abraham ben haRambam, 2:17; Malbim, 2:13, 16, 19.

[2] As an aside, another approach, focusing on the beginning of chapter 3, regards Moses’ selection as being due to his uprightness and mercy expressed instead through his role as a shepherd of Jethro’s flock. See, for example, Shemot Rabbah, 2:2 and Malbim, 3:1.

[3] See for example Rabbeinu Bachya, 2:10

[4] As Ramban (2:11) comments: “…because they told him that he was a Jew, and [so] he wanted to see them, since they were his brothers. And behold, he observed their duress and toil and he could not stand it. And therefore, he killed the Egyptian who was striking the harried [Jew].”

This theory may be further supported by Jethro’s daughters identifying Moses as "an Egyptian man" (2:19). Although various mediev‎al commentators (on 2:19) limit the scope of the perceived Egyptian image of Moses.

[5] On Miriam, Moses’ sister, risking her life to save and assist Moses see, for example, Malbim, 2:7 and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tuma’at Tzoraat, 16:10 “…she had raised him; and she had endangered herself to save him from the sea…”

[6] See Commentary on the Torah of Rabbi Abraham ben HaRambam in the name of Saadia Gaon, 2:5; Malbim, 2:7, 10, 11.

[7] Malbim, 2:10, 11

[8] Hertz Chumash, 2:10. See also the first explanation of Chizkuni, 2:10 for an even more extreme approach, namely, that Moses was brought up with Jewish values by the daughter of Pharaoh herself, at odds with the rest of the Egyptian royal court.