Countless Israelis have remarked on the bravery and leadership demonstrated by the soldiers currently serving in Gaza. Since October 7, the rise of a new generation of heroes has offered a glimmer of hope for the future of Israel beyond the current war and political impasse. How did this “TikTok generation” summon the inner resources to seize the reins of leadership at this crucial juncture in history?
Living in America, I am in no position to offer a rigorous account or even to speculate. But I can propose that Shemot chapter 2’s account of Moshe’s meteoric rise constitutes a foundational narrative about the ascent of a hero who, like our soldiers, utilizes physical strength and a fierce sense of justice to fight boldly on behalf of our people. A careful study of this chapter therefore stands to inform our understanding of the ways heroes are forged.
More specifically, this story follows Moshe’s growth from child to grown man. We will demonstrate that there are two ways of understanding Moshe’s coming-of-age story, one emphasizing the independent manner in which he rose to manhood and another that roots his rise in the lessons he gleaned from his childhood caretakers. But in the end, we will contend that both readings offer insight into the unexpected emergence of a warrior-hero for his generation – and ours.
In his outstanding monograph Making Men: The Male Coming-of-Age Theme in the Hebrew Bible, Steven Wilson convincingly reads chapter 2 as Moshe’s coming-of-age story, in which the young protagonist ultimately emerges as a fully-grown ideal biblical male. Because his scholarship so comprehensively yet critically builds on prior research, we rely heavily on Wilson’s presentation of the first, “independent” account of Moshe’s maturation.
To make his case that Moshe matures into an ideal biblical male adult in our chapter, Wilson begins by identifying the central characteristics of this type. Building on the relatively limited research in the field and his own insightful readings of numerous key texts in Tanakh, Wilson identifies the following attributes with the ideal biblical male: physical strength; wisdom, especially judicial wisdom; fraternal association with men (in other words, the ideal biblical man overwhelmingly operates in the social sphere of his fellow men); self-restraint; marriage; virility (specifically the ability to sire children); and kinship solidarity with his people.
Having painstakingly identified these qualities, Wilson takes up our chapter. To recall, Shemot 2 recounts Moshe’s birth, protection in the Nile, rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, and nursing in the bosom of his mother. It then relates three incidents in which Moshe saves his fellow Jew by killing his Egyptian tormentor, attempts to intervene in the physical altercation between two Jews, and escapes to Midyan, where he saves Reuel’s daughters at the well and marries Tzipora, the priest’s daughter.
To begin, Wilson observes, it is clear that Shemot 2:1-22 comprises a single literary unit which tells the tale of Moshe’s growth from cradle to adulthood. On a literary level, as we will see, the first part of the story emphasizes the term yeled, child, while the second part emphasizes ish, an adult man. As Carol Meyer notes, both the beginning and end of the chapter feature a marriage and then the birth of a son, first Moshe and then his son Gershon. The ability to distinguish good from bad plays a key role in both sections (Moshe’s mother “sees that he is good,” and Moshe judges one Jew as wicked), as does the motif of Moshe being hidden/hiding from Pharaoh to avoid mortal danger.
The first section of the chapter, which comprises verses 1-10, features the word yeled 7 times. Yeled also appears at the exact midpoint of this opening section, with 70 words beforehand and 70 after. This establishes Moshe’s childhood as the leitwort of the scene.
We may add to Wilson that this section is dominated by women, specifically Moshe’s mother and sister as well as Pharaoh’s daughter and maidservants. The repetition and varied terms used to refer to women reinforces this theme. The word bat, daughter, appears six times in this section (in addition to twice more in chapter 1 in regard to the midwives who refuse to kill the Israelite infant boys, and another three in reference to Reuel’s daughters). The word isha, woman, occurs on three occasions. Meineket, nursemaid, is used twice, and the verb yenika, nursing, twice more. Achot, sister, makes two appearances; na’arot, young ladies, one; and amah, maidservant, another time. We also find the obscure locution alma, one of only seven usages in Tanach. Women are ubiquitous throughout Moshe’s youth.
The hinge, Wilson continues, between the two sections is verses 10-11, where vayigdal is used twice, suggesting that here Moshe begins to become an adult.
Section 2, which comprises verses 11-22, is dominated by Moshe’s entry into the world of men and the recurrence of the word ish, which, like yeled in section 1, recurs seven times. This section is divided into three episodes, each of which illustrates different aspects of Moshe’s maturation into biblical manhood.
In the first part of this section, verses 11-12, Moshe saves the Jew from an Egyptian tormentor. Moshe’s actions here exemplify two aspects of biblical masculinity we noted previously: strength and kinship solidarity. We may add that Moshe’s solidarity with his fellow Israelites is particularly impressive given that Moshe did not grow up among his brethren.
The second part of section 2 appears in verses 13-15. Here, Moshe sees two Jews fighting and attempts to prevent the wicked one from harming his fellow. But the guilty man refuses Moshe’s attempted intervention, insinuating that it is a matter of public knowledge that Moshe killed an Egyptian. In this scene too, Moshe exemplifies multiple aspects of biblical manhood. He again demonstrates a willingness to intercede verbally and physically as needed, and he expresses solidarity with his fellow Jews. He continues to operate in a sphere occupied by fellow men. What is more, by using moral judgment to declare one man wicked, he demonstrates juridical wisdom. It is not for nought that he is accused of effectively appointing himself a “ruler and judge over us.”
Wilson also notes that the phrase “mi samecha ish sar ve-shofet aleinu” bears two plausible readings. According to one common interpretation, the man objects that no one appointed Moshe their ruler and judge. But on this reading, the word “ish” appears superfluous. Instead, a number of scholars propose that the objection was to Moshe having appointed himself a “man, ruler, and judge.” On this rendering, the wicked Jew questioned Moshe’s manhood. This reading places Moshe’s very status as a man – which has not yet been explicitly established by the text – at the center of the narrative.
Finally, in verses 15-22, Moshe flees to Midyan, saves the girls at the well, and ultimately marries Reuel’s daughter Tzipora. Here too, while Moshe interacts with women, his primary interactions are with men. He again displays courage by fearlessly confronting the Midianite shepherds. And he marries and demonstrates virility, fathering a son. Now that he has exhibited this sweeping range of characteristics associated with the quintessential biblical man, Moshe is explicitly termed an “ish” in verses 19-20, and his manhood is never questioned again.
While he never quite makes this point explicitly, one gets the sense from Wilson’s presentation that Moshe’s experience as a child provides a mere backdrop to his emergence as a fully-formed adult. In section 2, on this reading, Moshe essentially steps into manhood on his own – certainly a stunning achievement. This interpretation, however, faces a number of difficulties. It fails to account for a number of important elements in the narrative, such as Moshe’s acts of kindness and opposition to injustice, which figure prominently in the second part of chapter 2 but are not related to Wilson’s account of Moshe’s coming-of-age narrative. Even Moshe’s role as judge seems somewhat different from the classic role of judge that kings or even Moshe himself will play at later junctures in his life; this seems like more of an instinctive desire to act in the face of injustice, which does not fully align with Wilson’s criteria for masculinity.
Of course, Wilson may respond that these are important elements in Moshe’s development, but they are not essential to a study of biblical manhood. In this sense, Wilson may acknowledge that Moshe’s maturation does not take place in a vacuum. Be that as it may, though, the point remains: instead of seeing the first section as offering contrast or foil to the second, it seems more compelling to see it as constitutive of Moshe’s subsequent development. It is most sensible, as we will demonstrate presently, to assume that Moshe’s emergence as a hero is more closely related to the models of his youth.
What values, then, do those models embody? First, as noted, women dominate the opening section. A number of key characteristics stand out, beginning with those of Moshe’s family. The very decision of Moshe’s parents to marry and bear a child, set in context of Pharaoh’s androcidal decree, was itself an act of great courage. His mother’s intuitive ability to identify Moshe’s “goodness” features prominently as well. Her decision to save the infant suggests that hiding is not always an act of cowardice but can also be an act of bravery and defiance. The sister’s decision to watch him was yet another act of bravery and defiance. It also demonstrates initiative and responsibility.
Pharaoh’s daughter is also distinguished by a number of key traits. She too demonstrates remarkable compassion for the “other,” who has been demonized by her father and her people. She undertakes immense risk by taking in the baby – in front of others, no less – in defiance of her father’s edict. This leaves it to Moshe’s sister to devise a brilliant plan that protects the baby and Pharaoh’s daughter at once by sending him to be nursed by his own mother.
Beyond the women’s attributes, we may make a number of additional salient observations. As noted, none of the women are given names. While we might have seen this as a form of female erasure, this interpretation is difficult in light of the fact that Moshe’s father is also anonymous. Accordingly, a more convincing interpretation is that all the characters are nameless because their sole focus is on protecting Moshe. Thus, not only is Moshe the only character in the opening section and throughout the childhood narrative to bear a name – indeed, his very naming is a significant event – and he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter for her having saved him from drowning. Everyone’s activities are solely oriented toward caring for and protecting the vulnerable child until he is able to fend for himself.
The literary structure of the section reinforces this theme of being entirely dedicated to sparing and caring for the child:
A – Baby emerges into the world (1-2a)
B – Hiding the baby in the Nile (2b-3)
C – Guarding and saving the baby (4-6)
B1 – Hiding the baby among the Hebrews (7-9)
A1 – Young man emerges into the world (10)
Moshe’s birth and maturation are cushioned by a set of scenes in which his survival is assured, with the brazen actions of Moshe’s sister and Pharaoh’s daughter standing at the center.
Having traced a few of the salient themes and literary dimensions of the first half of the chapter, we may fruitfully appreciate its impact on Moshe’s later development into manhood. Many of Moshe’s salient attributes did not develop because he turned his back on his youthful experience but precisely because he embraced them. Moshe channels the women’s bravery into physical courage. His wisdom, as defined by his ability to distinguish good from evil, echoes his mother’s intuitive ability to discern Moshe’s innate goodness. These are all dimensions of biblical masculinity persuasively identified by Wilson – and in which the text implies that Moshe was shaped by his caretakers. Biblical masculinity, judging at least by this passage, does mean to abandon one’s childhood feminine influences but rather to incorporate and adapt them into a robust identity as a biblical man and hero.
Other virtuous characteristics of Moshe, even if they are not specifically associated with biblical masculinity, are also drawn from his earlier experience. Moshe’s willingness to utilize his bravery and physical strength to care for the needy clearly echoes the actions of the women who cared for him throughout his youth. His determination to be active rather than passive in the face of wickedness is presaged by the proactive behavior of those who cared for him. And his willingness to extend compassion not only to his kin but also to foreigners (the daughters of Midyan) echoes Pharaoh’s daughter’s compassion for the Israelite infant.
Moshe’s caretakers shaped him in yet one further way: they helped to restrain him from the potentially dangerous excesses of unchecked masculinity. The masculine hero is also easily tempted to imagine that the world centers around himself. But there is no hint that Moshe, here or elsewhere, engaged in acts of self-aggrandizement. Quite the opposite: he was renowned for his self-sacrifice and humility. He learned this from his male and female caretakers, who were so focused on producing, saving, and caring for the infant that they, as it were, sacrificed their renown for his survival. Similarly, the man who cares deeply for his kin might be tempted to demonize others in the process. Not so for Moshe, who defended innocent Hebrew and non-Hebrew victims alike. This, too, he learned from his forebears, particularly the daughter of Pharaoh. Finally, macho men are often tempted to believe that any act of fleeing is an act of cowardice. But sometimes this is not cowardice but wisdom or even an act of bravery. Moshe exemplified this by fleeing from Pharaoh when he recognized that his life was in danger, and the text conspicuously indicates that this in no way detracted from his masculinity. This, too, he learned from his mother and from Pharaoh’s daughter, both of whom recognized that it was wiser to hide the baby than defiantly raise an Israelite in full public view. In these three respects, Moshe’s manhood was not only shaped by but also moderated in healthy ways by his childhood experience so as to avoid the unhealthy excesses of unencumbered manhood.
In sum, while one might have suggested that Moshe’s coming-of-age should be read as a stand-alone story in which he departs from his childhood experiences, in fact quite the opposite is true: he is molded by his childhood experiences in a host of ways.
Yet one pivotal question remains. For despite his formative influences, nothing about Moshe’s heroic behavior was inevitable. Any young person, even with the best of role models, ultimately may choose not to rise to the occasion and fight on behalf of his or her brethren. The right raw materials are no guarantee of a finely-crafted finished product. How and when did Moshe make this fateful decision?
The pivotal point in the narrative comes as Moshe encounters his first injustice. Still growing up, Moshe sees the Egyptian striking the Jew. The Torah remarks, vayar ki ein ish, literally, “and he saw that there was no man.” Only after ascertaining that “there was no man” did Moshe smite the Egyptian.
What exactly was Moshe looking for? Many commentators read this verse as suggesting that Moshe simply looked around to make sure there were no witnesses to his “crime.” But many observe that there is another equally plausible interpretation: there was no one else “man” enough to step up and intercede. It is only when he makes this observation, numerous classical commentators suggest, that Moshe crosses the rubicon to adulthood and fights for his fellow Jew.
Indeed, a strikingly similar verse in Yeshaya (59:16) supports this interpretation. According to the prophet:
[God] saw that there was nobody else (vayar ki ein ish),
Gazing long, but no one intervened.
Then God’s own arm did win triumph,
The victorious right hand gave support.
This, then, is the key. Like Moshe, the vast majority of our chayalim and chayalot were undoubtedly profoundly shaped by the values of their families and caregivers. Our proud and anxious mothers and fathers are not incidental to their children’s success but helped model the bravery, high ethical standards, strength of character, and discipline that our soldiers are displaying on the battlefield. But in the end, these are only the backdrop to living a life of heroism. When 360,000 soldiers were sent into Gaza, they recognized that ein ish. Greatness, or at least the opportunity to achieve greatness, was thrust upon them. No one else could accept this responsibility. For younger soldiers, the bridge to adulthood stood before them. And so, like Moshe, drawing courage from those who came before, they and their comrades crossed to the other side, accepting responsibility and transforming themselves into today’s biblical fighters, inspiring hope for a new generation.