Was Moshe Great?

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. WADR I’m not sure I agree with your pshat in good will hunting (BTW I identify with Lambeau – the scene where Will sets the math proof on fire was classic). IIRC Will gives up some big $ offers to reunite with the girl he loved but pushed away due to his own being abused (very topical for our community). In the sequel (in my mind) they get married and have lots of genius kids while she is a doc in UCLA and he figures out the multiverse at Caltech.

    I do agree that talent wasted is the true Oshek Yadeinu (see R’YBS)

  2. I forget the ending of Good Will Hunting. But I find your point very interesting. This theme of “love above all” pervades many TV shows and movies, and I agree with you that the man often should absolutely not go yield to love if it means giving up doing that which he does best.

    Besides, what kind of woman asks her man to be something less than he is? Are genius spies really fulfilling their tachlis in life by “giving it all up” ad living on a beach with a lovely woman?

    I am very happy that you brought up this topic, Gil. I think if we analyzed movies and TV shows, we’d find several recurrent themes which I find wrong. This theme of abandoning all for love is, in my opinion, one of them.

  3. 1. The midrash about light at Moshe’s birth is obviously based on the verse וירא אלקים את האור כי טוב .

    2. “Perhaps more accurately, since Moshe did not face a dark side,” – Seriously? Why was he prevented from entering the land of Israel if not as punishment for a rare use of the dark side? To say Moshe successfully controlled his dark side is to praise him. To say Moshe didn’t have a dark side can be seen as belittling him.

  4. 3. In pshat, perhaps Yocheved say that Moshe was viable – unlike many babies before modern health care – and thus worth endangering herself in order to protect.

  5. say -> saw

  6. Shlomo: And hence the Tiferet Yisrael was banned/edited.

  7. Shlomo: The Midrash actually quotes that verse in Bereishis. No need to speculate.

  8. Shades of Gray

    “To say Moshe successfully controlled his dark side is to praise him. To say Moshe didn’t have a dark side can be seen as belittling him.”

    See link below to R. Shnayer Z. Leiman’s Tradition article(R. Israel Lipschuts: The Portrait of Moses). Dr. Aaron Rabinowitz discusses R. Leiman’s article in a later Communications to Tradition and in his book “Judaism and Psychology Meeting Points”, IIRC. R. AJ Twerski(“Why man is greater than the angels”), linked below, sees the Tifers Yisroel as valid, while R.Shimshon Dovid Pincus in “Nefesh Shimshon: Gates of Emunah” agrees with those who say the Midrash relied on by the TY is a forgery.



  9. ” In pshat, perhaps Yocheved say that Moshe was viable – unlike many babies before modern health care – and thus worth endangering herself in order to protect.”

    In fact, this is, I believe, the most basic meaning of “Tov–” worthy or capable of continuity. It is the Ramban’s interpretation on “Ki Tov” of creation. It is peshat in “Lo tov heyot ha-Adam levado.” It is at the root of Tu B’Av being called a Yom Tov, depite no korban or issur melacha. The events celebrated by Tu B’Av made possible the continuity of the Jewish people at different junctures. It is the clear parallelism in the verse in Kohelet: V’Tov lo yihyeh la-rasha, v’lo ya’arikh yamim… and many, many more.

    Second: The midrash cited by the TY beaurtifully furthers the contrast between Moshe and Bilaam and further demonstrate Gil’s point about potential and what we do with it.

    Finally, this lesson is precisely the one taught by the imagery in Shmuel Alef comparing David first to Yaakov (works for father-in-law, promised one sister but given another, “mira’ashotav,” “terafim” and many more–see Rav Bazak in Makbilot Nifgashot and his shiurim on the VBM) and then to Esav (“Admoni, 400 men, give a gift of meat called “beracha,”) specifically when he is about to destroy Naval’s household. Avigayil tells him, essentially, that just as Yaakov has an identity crisis when he encounters L-V-N, so is he, David, is having such a crisis as a result of encountering N-V-L. He must choose and work to be Yaakov, rather than Esav.

    And, of course, this is exactly the point made by Headmaster Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter at the end of the first book of the HP saga: “It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

  10. I like the point, but I don’t find the implication that Moshe was “born” special either troubling or inconsistent with Moshe having to work to maximize his potential. In other words, I think the point of the post is true and worth making, but I don’t see it as answering a question.

    For comparison, the view within Chazal that Avraham recognized God at the age of 3 does imply that it was “natural” to him, but doesn’t imply that Avraham somehow coasted based on his natural spirituality from then on.

    Moshe Rabeinu can be seen as having been “made” by God different from all other people (see Rambam at end of 1st perek of Hilchot Avoda Zara, I believe there are other sources for this though I don’t know them offhand), but I don’t think this detracts from his achievement –he still had free will and used it.

    With similar disclaimers to those in the original post regarding maintaining the sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane even when analogizing between them –is the achievement of the olympic gold medal winner any less a result of his hard work just because only certain people were born with the ability to run anywhere near that fast? I think not.

  11. Not having seen the book myself I don’t know if he quotes him, but the Maharal says this pshat openly. Moshe was born on a different darga to be the moshia yisroel.

  12. R Gil-I like the analogy to Anakin Skywalker. I would also suggest that R Mosheh Lichenstein’s book on Moshe Rabbeinu is a superb discussion of Moshe’s development as a leader as well.

  13. Dovid Teitelbaum

    You mean “Was Moshe born great?”

  14. Doesnt the Rambam say that everyone has the potential to be a Tzadik like Moshe? He must understand the midrashim to mean that Moshe had an easier time becoming Moshe than anyone else but that with effort we too can be like Moshe. Of course, in addition to bring a Tzadik he did reacha level of Nevuah that can NOT be reached by others, ie HKBH spoke to him kaspaklaria hameirah. Hence the uniqueness of Moshe nevua but not his tzidkus

  15. Tiferes Yisroel On Mishnah at the end of Kiddushin states that Moshe admits that he was not perfect initially. What was so special about him is that he perfected himself by working on his middos.

  16. In the latest Toras HaRav Foundation work of RYBS’s thought, which focuses on Joseph and Moses, there is an entire chapter devoted to the evolution and development of Moshe Rabbeinu based on RYBS’s reading of Chumash and Midrashim and Mfarshim that set forth the changes and growth in Moshe’s views towards the worthiness of the Jewish People to be saved that take a markedly positive change from his POV upon fleeing Egypt to being a shepherd for Yisro to his encounter with HaShem and his reaching the highest level of prophecy.

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