Moshe the Outsider (Ideas #58)

When we start reading Sefer Shemot, we start learning about a personality who is larger than life. As explained by the Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, Moshe is in a category all by himself. That being the case, it is hard to find anything intelligent to say about him. After all, Moshe defied the limits of humanness, or more precisely, showed us that there are almost no such limits, short of being G-d Himself.

Nonetheless, a fascinating paradox in Moshe's climb to greatness deserves our attention. This is the curious fact that the greatest Jew to walk the face of the earth spent his childhood and youth in a completely foreign culture. Interestingly, while tradition tells us that the Jews were saved by maintaining their names, language and dress, it is likely that in his youth, Moshe's name,* language and certainly his mode of dress were primarily Egyptian.

Various commentators have noticed this paradox and given explanations for this anomalous situation. The great 19th century commentator, Malbim, for example, explains that the royal court of Egypt was the best place for Moshe to acquire the characteristics and abilities that he would need to lead the Jewish people. Yet implicit in Malbim's view is that, had there been a Jewish monarch and court from which to learn from, it would have been preferable for Moshe to avoid the court of Paraoh in other words, Moshe had to learn from a foreign culture, as there was no other alternative available.

But there may be another reason not yet suggested for Moshe's bi-cultural upbringing: Growing up in a certain culture or nation prevents us from being totally objective about the group to which we belong. It is a natural tendency for a person to assume the values of his or her culture, even when these values are not ideal. These values are often accepted as simply being the way things are, as if there were no other choice. On some level, this allows for a certain stability if everyone is constantly challenging the prevailing culture's norms and values, it is difficult to maintain that culture in any viable form. This stability, however, comes at a cost it is often a small step form stability to stagnation.

Moshe was in charge of leading us through the greatest revolution in history a revolution that would require the Jews to address their faults in as complete a fashion as possible. As is true with almost all prophetic experiences, the Jews who would hear the voice of G-d at Sinai would need to be worthy of such an exalted experience. In turn, that experience would forever catapult the Jews to becoming the vanguard of holiness in the world. Such leadership could only come from someone who saw the Jews objectively who could recognize their weaknesses unapologetically. From this point of view, there was a need for the Jews to be led by an outsider.

It is in this manner too, that Tosefot Yeshanim understands the statement in the Tractate Yevamot 47b that converts are like a scab to the Jewish people (see also Tosefot Kiddushin 70b). This Talmudic commentary implies that the convert does not have any examples from whom to learn and thus performs the mitzvot the way they are supposed to be performed and not necessarily the way they are actually performed. As such, his unusually model conduct is abrasive to the rest of the Jews, who are used to a lower standard since this is simply the way things are done.

Of course being purely objective is not the only requirement of a Moshe. Objectivity makes it more difficult to feel the nation's suffering it makes it too easy to say that these punishments are what they deserve. Even as Moshe's foreign objectivity benefited the Jewish people, he could not be its leader without complete identification with the people's affliction. Thus, even as Moshe had to be raised by Egyptians, still his earliest childhood had to be amongst Jews. He had to be emotionally connected from the crib.

Indeed as a leader, Moshe needed to have both of these qualifications objective intellect and subjective emotion. On some level, what is true of Moshe should be true of any good Jew. In today's religious community, subjective partisan emotion does not seem to be a problem. Granted, it is good for us to be loyal to our people but it is only half of the equation.

There is a group in the religious camp that can give us the other half of the equation here I speak about the so-called ba'al teshuva community, from which I draw my roots and with which I still have much contact. Because this group grew up in the Egyptian court, they have the ability to be more objective about the Jewish people and so, constructively point out its weaknesses. By and large, however, this is not happening. The more objective viewpoint of the ba'al teshuva is often criticized as foreign, which causes most ba'alei teshuva to question their own frequently legitimate perspective and to cower to the pressures of traditional society.

I remember discussing a certain series of children's books with a kindergarten teacher working for me a few years back. I told her that I did not feel the books were appropriate as they caricatured all the non-Jewish characters as stupid and anti-semitic. She responded by saying that she did not understand what I meant and that it must be that I had a somewhat goyish view of things. My thought was that my point of view was in fact much more Jewish than hers. I wonder if Moshe's leadership was also castigated for being goyish.

When I was criticized by my employee, I had two advantages that most ba'alei teshuva do not have. First, I was her supervisor and thus, goyish or not, I was the one who made the final decision. Secondly, I had pursued my Torah studies to the point where I could feel self-confident in my own understanding of Jewish tradition.

Be that as it may, however, all ba'alei teshuva need to realize that veteran religious Jews are not always correct in their opinions, and base much more than they might think on this is just how things are done. Ba'alei teshuva must realize that much of their own initial dissatisfaction with the traditional world comes from a greater objectivity. They must further realize that just as objectivity was needed in the time of Moshe to help the Jews improve themselves, so too is it needed today if the Jews are truly to improve themselves.

Coming to this realization is not just good for the ba'al teshuva, it is, more importantly, good for the Jewish people as a whole.

* see Ibn Ezra, R. Shmuel David Luzzato, Malbim and R. Aryeh Kaplan (Shemot 2:10) on this point.