As we begin the book of Shmot, we bid a fond farewell to the Avot, and welcome Moshe Rabbeinu, not as the head of a family, but as our first national leader. He becomes the central character in our most sacred text. There is an expectation that much biographical info will be provided, and, initially, we’re not disappointed. We meet his family even before his birth. At birth, he’s already recognized as remarkable by his mother, ‘She realized how extraordinary he was (VA’TERA KI TOV HU, Shmot 2:2).’ Then we have the remainder of the chapter describing his dual upbringing, nursed by his birth mother and then trained in the royal palace, and, eventually, his exile from Egypt. In Midian, he marries and sires two sons. Then silence, until our hero is 80 years old.
How many years are missing? It’s not clear. But it would seem to be approximately half of his 120 years. What should we do about the missing years?
Well, there are two options: be creative or ignore them.
The ‘be creative’ team has fascinated curious readers of Torah for ages. There’s a famous Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, 1:161) that Moshe ruled as king in Kush (Ethiopia?) for 40 years, the historian Josephus, quoting an earlier report, may be the source for that tradition.
The ‘ignore them’ side is led by the Ibn Ezra, who noted: “And regarding that which is written in the Chronicles of Moshe, don’t believe it. As a general rule (KLAL) I tell you, any book not written by the prophets or the sages and which is based on tradition, don’t rely on them (2:22).” However, the Rashbam’s commentary on the gossip about Moshe having a Kushite wife (Bamidbar 12:1) does reference the tradition that Moshe ruled there for 40 years.
Personally, I prefer the ‘ignore them’ option, at least this year. I’d like to think that we have all the material needed to understand Moshe Rabbeinu. Before I explain my theory, I feel compelled to compare the stories of Moshe and Avraham. They both are notable for the missing material, but in a strikingly dissimilar way. The Torah tells us nothing about Avraham until he was 75 years old, except that he was born. With Moshe we get a glimpse at his childhood, before he disappears for decades. Clearly, Moshe’s formative years are essential to understanding who he became; Avraham’s, not so much.
I believe strongly that the key to understanding these formative years of Moshe is the repetition of the term VAYIGDAL (and he grew up), in verses ten and eleven. Initially, we’re told that ‘he grew up’ to inform us of that moment when he no longer needed his birth mother, Yocheved, as a nursemaid or nanny, perhaps in the neighborhood of 3 to 5 years old.
Then we are informed again that ‘he grew up’. This may signify young adulthood or adolescence. That juncture is critical. Which influences would shape and mold young Moshe? The palace or his mother? And we get the answer immediately: And he went out towards his brethren (ECHAV, verse 11). He identified with the downtrodden slave population with whom he shared DNA.
The Ha’Emek Davar points out that during his growth years he didn’t normally go out of the palace or interrupt his studies to ‘go out’, except to observe ‘his brethren’. The bond with the Israelites was strong.
The Malbim, I think, best expresses the critical concept:
The verse relates the righteousness of Moshe, and how at an early stage he already possessed all the attributes by means of which he would merit the great honors to come. In spite of growing up in the royal palace, and noticing the degraded position of Israel, nevertheless he went out to them as brethren. He never hid his face from them, because they are his family. This is the opposite of the natural development in which people who rise to greatness distance themselves from their poor and needy relatives.
The Malbim is explaining that this is more than just a run of the mill expression of ‘blood is thicker than water’ (even the awesome waters of the Nile). This is the description of a profound spiritual personality. We are eyewitnesses to the emergence of the ZADIK, who will define our national destiny.
I can’t comment on the unknown development of Avraham Avinu, although I might next parshat Lech Licha. The Torah remains silent. But with Moshe Rabbeinu, we don’t need to know what happened during the ‘missing years’. We’ve got all the material needed to understand the greatness of Moshe, our eternal mentor.