THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shemot – פרשת שמות
January 6, 2018 – יט טבת תשעח
The Age of Maturity
After finding Moses floating in a basket on the Nile River, Pharaoh’s daughter gave over the infant to his biological (Hebrew) mother for her to nurse him (Exodus 2:9). Moses stayed in the home of Amram and Jochebed for an unspecified length of time. Scripture records that when ויגדל הילד “the child grew” he was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter for her to raise him as a son (2:10). The plain meaning of the text, as noted by Robert Alter, is that Moses remained in his Hebrew family’s home only until he was weaned. That would have occurred at age two or three. The sooner Moses was returned to the royal palace the more plausible it would be for Pharaoh’s daughter to claim that he truly was her child.
And yet, because Scripture here does not use the expression “and the child grew and was weaned,” as it does in describing the maturation of Isaac (Genesis 21:8), it is possible to suggest that the growth mentioned in 2:10 is some stage of development later than the cessation of breastfeeding. In the Midrash, Rabbi Hama claimed that Moses was removed from his Hebrew upbringing at age twelve. Had he remained with his Levite family any longer, the Israelites would not have believed him to be the national redeemer because they would have suspected that he learned of the redeemer’s required signs and wonders not from God but from his elders (Exodus Rabbah 5:2).
The next verse complicates our understanding of Moses’ development. “And it happened at that time that Moses grew and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens (Exodus 2:11).” The masters of the Aggadah and the medieval commentators had to address Scripture’s use of the same word, ויגדל, in consecutive verses narrating different phases of Moses’ development. The Midrash, cited by Rashi, understood the first verse as referring to growth in height and physical stature while the second verse referred to Moses’ elevation to a position of prominence in Pharaonic government (Deuteronomy Rabbah Va’etchanan). Ramban interpreted 2:10 to mean that Moses was weaned and 2:11 to convey that Moses attained intellectual maturity.
In addition to the double-mention of Moses’ growth, the homilists were troubled by the fact that Scripture notes Moses’ maturation at all. Every normal human grows as a matter of course; why mention it? Rabbi Judah explained that Moses physically matured at an unnaturally rapid pace: At age five he looked as though he were eleven (Tanhuma Va’era 17). This Aggadic embellishment is consistent with Scriptural assertions about Moses’ supernatural physical attributes, notably that at age 120 “his eye had not gone bleary and his sap had not fled (Deuteronomy 34:7).”
At what age did Moses “grow up,” recognize the plight of his fellow Israelites, kill the cruel Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave, and flee Egypt to save his own life after his murder of the taskmaster was exposed? A curious answer is supplied by the Midrash. Upon the inauguration of the wilderness Tabernacle, the silver of the vessels donated by the twelve tribal princes amounted to 2,400 shekels (Numbers 7:85). In the year 2400 from the creation of the world (Anno Mundi), Moses began to preach to Israel. Since Moses was born in 2368, he was 32 in 2400 (Numbers Rabbah 14:18).
Most rabbinic sources cite two possible ages for Moses at the time of his flight from Egypt. Rabbi Judah held that Moses was 20; Rabbi Nehemiah asserted that he was 40 (see Exodus Rabbah 1:27 and 1:30). What underpins these two guesses are varying interpretations of the remark made by one of the brawling Israelites whom Moses had chastised. “Who set you as a man prince and judge over us? (Exodus 2:14).” Rabbi Judah explained this to mean that Moses was not at that point of an appropriate age to hold a judicial position, since he was merely 20 but one does not attain the requisite understanding to hold office until age 40 (see Avot 5:21). Rabbi Nehemiah explained the brawler’s remark to be a concession that Moses had reached the requisite age, but was nonetheless unqualified to be a judge over them. A related Midrashic passage asserts that Moses was slightly under 20 years old, and that the brawler’s comment was a denial that Moses had reached the basic age of manhood – twenty (Tanhuma Shemot 8).
Some Aggadists preferred the age of 40 for Moses’ flight from Egypt because that reckoning conveniently allows for a neat division of Moses’ life into three equal parts: 40 years in Egypt, 40 years in Midian, and 40 years as the leader of Israel in the wilderness. In this respect, Moses is compared to three giants of early rabbinism. Hillel the Elder went up from Babylonia at age 40, studied for 40 years, and led Israel for 40 years. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai engaged in business for 40 years, studied for 40 years, and led Israel for 40 years. Rabbi Akiba was an ignoramus until age 40, studied for 40 years, and led Israel for 40 years. All died at age 120 (Sifre Deuteronomy 357). The New Testament, too, adopts this timeline for the career of Moses, noting the tripartite division of his life. “And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers the children of Israel (Acts 7:23).”
The Apocryphal Book of Jubilees claims that Moses was in his early 20s when he fled Egypt, having spent 21 years in the palace. “And thou were three weeks of years at court until the time when thou did go forth from the royal court and did see an Egyptian smiting thy friend (Jubilees 47:10).” By contrast, the Book of Jasher, which tells wild stories about Moses’ having been king of Ethiopia, claims a younger age for his departure from Egypt. “And Moses was eighteen years old when he fled from Egypt from the presence of Pharaoh, and he fled and escaped to the camp of Kikianus, which at that time was besieging Cush (Jasher 72:22).”
Louis Ginzberg suggested that the genesis of the various interpretations of Exodus 2:11 and the “growth” of Moses stems from conflicting opinions about the Judaically-recognized age of majority (Legends of the Jews, Volume 5 page 406). According to the new halakhah, from the age of 13 a boy is duty-bound to fulfill mitzvoth and can be punished for violations thereof. At that age, he is considered a גדול, or grown person. However, the older halakhah posited a more advanced age for recognition of manhood. The predominant opinion, held by the House of Hillel, considered the age of 20 to be the moment of transition from adolescence to full responsible adulthood. This view is consistent with Scriptural passages requiring men aged twenty and up to participate in national endeavors such as military conscription (Numbers 1:3) and the census (Exodus 30:14). The House of Shammai, by contrast, considered an 18-year-old to have reached the age of majority (Mishnah Niddah 5:9). The Book of Jubilees and Rabbi Judah followed the view of Hillel, while the Book of Jasher followed the Shammaitic approach.
[The evolution of the halakhah defining the age of manhood is readily apparent when the Talmudic corpus is viewed broadly. Tannaitic literature does not much emphasize a boy’s thirteen birthday as being a legally consequential turning point other than for the efficacy of vows and sanctification of Temple donations (Mishnah Niddah 5:6). For laws relating to sexual intercourse, a male’s ninth birthday was considered the critical date (Mishnah Yebamoth 10:6). By the early Amoraic period, however, there was universal consensus that a 13-year-old is an adult for ritual purposes (Yoma 82a).]
Though the word ויגדל can simply connote a person’s reaching an age at which he is no longer a minor not responsible for his deeds, ויגדל can also connote achieving a measure of גדולה, or greatness. Much more important than the question of the age at which Moses grew up is that of what Moses did to warrant being extolled as a גדול, or great man. The Rabbinic answer is that “He went out to his brothers” (Tanhuma Va’era 17). He forsook the comforts of palace life. He cast off his adopted Egyptian persona in order to identify with his people, the beleaguered Israelites. Moreover, he took up the cudgels of his people and acted zealously to defend his Israelite kinsman from the taskmaster.
Surely one measure of greatness is the willingness to look beyond the convenience and comfort of one’s own material circumstances and instead to take substantial risks for one’s country and people and for those suffering under oppression.