After the infant Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, the Torah tells us, “Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.”
A simple enough sentence, but it raises an interesting question — just how did Moses know that the Hebrew slaves were his brothers? Since it was Pharaoh who had ordered that the Hebrew baby boys be drowned, it’s hardly likely that Moses’ origins were dinner table conversation in the palace. Moses would have grown up thinking of himself as an Egyptian, an aristocrat in Pharaoh’s household. So how did he come to recognize his brothers? The Torah doesn’t tell us.
Perhaps he was teased by the other children of the royal household who — imitating what they heard their parents say — told him he wasn’t really a prince. And the young Moses turned to his mother for an explanation. Perhaps his adoptive mother waited until he grew up and then told Moses how she had saved him from the Nile and adopted him, warning him to keep the truth about his origins secret. Perhaps Moses had already received the gift of prophecy and had learned the truth in a vision.
But however he learned that he was one of the Hebrews, Moses went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. Actually, he did much more than “see their burdens”; he was no disinterested observer. Almost immediately, Moses got involved.
He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and when he determined there was no one around to help or to witness, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.
But lest we think that Moses was concerned solely with defending his fellow Jews against non-Jews, the Torah tells us that on the very next day Moses stepped in to stop a fight between two Jews. And shortly after that, after he had fled for his life to Midian, Moses intervened to protect seven Midianite sisters from a group of shepherds who were driving them away from the communal well.
Three times, Moses stepped in to save someone being treated unjustly by a stronger party, even though the first intervention — killing the Egyptian — cost him his position in Pharaoh’s household and forced him to flee from Egypt and the life he had known.
Certainly Moses had not learned this in Pharaoh’s house. He grew up in the home of an absolute monarch who considered himself a god, who enslaved an entire people, and who ordered the death of infants. The young Moses was taught that privilege and superiority were his by right, that he could abuse his inferiors simply for his own amusement. So where did he learn compassion? Where did he get his sense of justice?
There are midrashic sources that claim he was taught these things during his infancy in the home of Yocheved and Amram. But Moses’ character was formed by more than the memories of a two-year-old. Throughout his years in Pharaoh’s palace, he heard a call to justice and compassion each day as people spoke to him and called him “Moses,” a name that was a subtle reminder of his mission.
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter gave her adopted son a Hebrew name: “She named him Moses, explaining, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” But Pharaoh’s daughter was, apparently, no expert in Hebrew grammar. If her intention was to name her son “the one who was drawn out,” she should have called him Mashu’i — using the passive form — rather than Moshe, “the one who draws out.”
Midrash HaGadol explains that he was named Moses/Moshe — “the one who draws out” — because he would draw Israel out and lead them out of Egypt. The 16th-century Italian commentator Sforno adds that the name Moshe means “he who rescues and draws forth others from trouble.”
Every day, as Moses/Moshe heard those around him speak his name, he was reminded that his mission was to be a rescuer. And so, when he saw injustice, when he saw people, Jews or non-Jews, being treated unjustly, his immediate impulse was to intervene and save them from their oppressors.
Our rabbis speak of mida k’neged mida, measure for measure — in contemporary terms, what goes around comes around. Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t name her son Mashu’i, but Moshe, the one who draws out. It’s as if she were saying, just as your adoptive mother took a risk and saved you from an oppressor, so too you must find ways to rescue others from oppression.
At this secular new year, think of all the good that has been done for you and resolve to balance your spiritual account by doing good for others. Mida k’neged mida.