Was Moshe Great?
When Moshe was born, the room filled with light. This familiar midrash is only one of many opinions but most point in the same troubling direction. R. Ari Kahn, in his recent Echoes of Eden: Sefer Shmot–Salvation and Sanctity (we discussed his first volume here), explores this among his many creative topical studies, combining a careful literary sensitivity with a philosophical soul and encyclopedic commentarial expertise into an overflowing fountain of biblical insight. In this particular study, R. Kahn explains the textual cues and conceptual bases of the midrashim about Moshe’s birth.
The Torah (Ex. 2:2) tells us that when Yocheved gave birth to Moshe, “and she saw him, that he was good, and she hid for three months.” R. Kahn points out the strangeness of this description: “If she had not liked the way he looked would she have handed him over to the authorities who were searching for newborn Jewish males?” Why does this unremarkable motherly love merit mention in the text? Clearly, she detected something unique about the baby.
The Gemara (Sotah 12a) lists five suggestions of what Yocheved saw:
- She named him “Tov” (good)
- She named him “Tuviah” (God is good)
- He was worthy of prophecy
- He was born circumcised
- When he was born, the room filled with light
The first two opinions imply that Yocheved designated Moshe as a leader. However, the subsequent three views suggest that he was born a leader, chosen by God to redeem his people from bondage. R. Kahn addresses the implications of this selection.
If Moshe was designated at birth as the Jewish savior, born with unique abilities that were immediately discernible, what choice did he have? Apparently, none. Moshe was preordained to fulfill God’s promise of redemption. Similarly, Pharaoh’s free will was suspended, as God hardened his heart during some of the plagues. Both were thrust into the middle of a cosmic drama, a battle determined centuries prior in God’s promise to Avraham. These two powerful figures were really pawns of the divine plan.
Or were they? While R. Kahn’s theory presents a convenient literary parallel, I suggest that Moshe’s and Pharaoh’s situations were different. Pharaoh sinned and his free will was subsequently removed (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:3). Moshe, on the other hand, never lost his free will. Rather, he was born with great potential that he could either utilize or fritter away.
To use examples from the popular media of my youth (with a thousand prefatory distinctions between holy and mundane), Moshe was like Anakin Skywalker. He was the chosen one who could have followed the path to greatness or to the dark side. Perhaps more accurately, since Moshe did not face a dark side, he was like the savant in Good Will Hunting. The protagonist of that movie, Will Hunting, was born a math genius. He could have used those skills for the betterment of scholarship and mankind but instead threw it all away to enjoy life, to chase after a girl. While the audience was expected to cheer his humanist choice, I mourned the loss to society of a remarkable talent.
Greatness requires not only innate skill but also hard work and more than a little mazal. Talent is a necessary but insufficient requirement of greatness. Moshe had the skills and the mazal. However, his free will lay in finding the courage and strength to utilize his abilities to their fullest. He could have chosen the way of Darth Vader or Will Hunting, the wasteful paths of ignominy or insignificance, which would have caused God to find another messenger of redemption. Instead, he rose to the challenge and utilized his talents, fully realizing the promise he showed at birth. Yes, light shone at his birth but he deserves credit for carrying that illumination to the whole world.
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