Why Moshe?

Midrash Raba (Vayyikra 1:3), partly based on I Chron. 4:18, lists ten names for the man of whom the Torah testifies “never has there arisen a prophet like [him]”(Deut 34:10). They are: Yered, Heber, Yekutiel, Avigdor, Avi-Sokho, Avi-Zanoakh, Tuvia, Shemaya Ben Natan’el, Levi and Moshe. (Other Midrashim also cite the names Heiman and Michokek.) The Midrash concludes: Said G-D to Moses: As you live, out of all those names, I shall call you only the one which Bitya (a.k.a. Batya) the daughter of Pharaoh called you, namely Moshe. as it is written “because I drew him (meshitihu) out of the water” (Ex. 2:10). 

Why, out of all the noble Hebrew names by which Moses was called, was Moshe, an Egyptian name, selected by G-D to immortalise the father of all the prophets?

In order to help shed light on the mystery, let me retell one of my favourite parables.

An aged magnate had three sons to each of whom he bequeathed, on his deathbed, a very special gift.  To the first son he gifted magic binoculars through which one could see from one end of the world to the other.  To the second son he bestowed a magic carpet on which one could travel across the globe.  To the third son he bequeathed a magic apple which, upon eating, would heal any sickness.

One day, the oldest brother peered through his binoculars and beheld: in a faraway land languished a princess stricken by a mortal illness. Her father the king, had proclaimed that whoever could cure her daughter would win her hand in marriage.

Immediately he summoned his two brothers.  They rode instantly, courtesy of the middle brother’s magic carpet, to the distant land.  The youngest brother gave the princess to eat of the magic apple and within moments she was cured.

Now all three brothers presented themselves to the king.  The oldest declared: were it not for my binoculars, we would never have seen your daughter’s plight. I should be the one to marry her.

The middle one declared: had it not been for my magic carpet, we could never have got here in time.  I should be the one to marry her.

The youngest declared: were it not for my apple she would never have been cured.  I should be the one to marry her.

Wisely, the king placed the matter in his daughter’s hands allowing her to decide.

The princess met all three brothers and said: I owe you all an everlasting debt of gratitude. Without the contribution of each of you, I could not have gotten well.  However, you two older brothers still have in your hands the precious objects your father bequeathed you. But you (turning to the youngest brother and smiling), you have sacrificed your precious gift, the magic apple, to make me well. You have given of your very self!  I wish to marry none other than you!

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The Midrash (see also Yalkut Shimeoni) tells us that the name Yekutiel was given to Moses by his mother, Yocheved, because he caused the B’nei Yisrael to hope (yekavu) in their Father in Heaven. Some say she (also) called him Tuvia when she saw that he was “a goodly (tov) child” (Exodus 2:2)

His father, Amram, named him Heber because he joined (chiber) the children of Israel to their Father in heaven; also because he averted (he’evir) the visitation of punishment upon the world.

His sister Miriam called him Yered because he brought down (horid) the Torah – or according to another opinion the Shekhina (Divine Presence) – from heaven.

His brother Aaron named him Avi-Zanoach because he was the father (av) of those who caused the people of Israel to relinquish (zana) idols (see Exodus 32:20)

His grandfather, Kehat, called him Avigdor as he was the father (av) of the “fence-makers” (gdorim) i.e. those who constructed a ‘fence’ of protection around the Torah.

His wet-nurse gave him the name Avi-Sokho since he was the father of the prophets who “see” (sokhim in Arabic – a prophet is called in that language sakya) by means of ruakh hakodesh (special Divine insight).

The people of Israel called him Shemaia Ben Netan’el because G-D heard (shema Y-a-h) his prayer and because he was a son (ben) to whom the Torah was directly given by G-D (natan-E-y-l).

All these names allude to the greatest of our prophets in the period following not only the assumption of his Divine mission but also his ascension to the acclaimed leadership of Am Yisrael.

However none of these names appear in the Torah. 90+ per cent of Jews have no idea that they are monikers for the greatest prophet who ever lived.

Instead we know him only as Moshe – the name given by his foster-mother Batya (or Bitya), the daughter of Pharaoh. This name does not appear to allude to any greatness on Moses’ part.  It merely refers to the fact that Batya drew him (meshitiyhu) from the water in his infancy.   

So why did Batya’s name alone survive in the Torah? I would suggest that in the light of the parable above, the answer can be found.

It is true that had it not been for his parents, his grandfather and even Miriam his older sister (who, according to the Midrash, persuaded Amram and Yocheved to have more children despite the danger), Moses would not have been born.  And without the active encouragement, endorsement and indeed empowerment of Aaron, his older brother, Moses would not have succeeded as leader.

But, by far, the highest degree of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) was shown by Batya, arguably the most extraordinary woman in Tanakh. Not only does she show compassion on a baby she knows to be a “Hebrew” (Exodus 2:6), she takes him into the royal palace ruled by her despotic father and adopts him as her son. Every day she lives in fear of the identity of the child being discovered; every day her life hangs by a hairsbreadth. (One may be certain that the megalomaniac Pharaoh would not have spared even his own daughter under such circumstances as he would have viewed her action as high treason and personal betrayal of her own father.) She knows the stakes; and yet her unbridled human compassion and identification with the downtrodden overrides her fear of the unimaginable consequences of discovery.

No-one quite as much as Batya, who placed her life on the line, deserves the privilege of being awarded naming-rights for posterity over the greatest prophet who ever lived.

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As a postscript, we can add that the Midrash we quoted earlier deems it significant to cite the reason the Torah gives for the name Moshe – “because I drew him out of the water!”

As we have mentioned, all Moses’ other names refer to his greatness as leader in the closing trimester of his life.

Alone, among the names, “Moshe” alludes not to his achievements as leader but rather to a success story which in a way was even greater.  He was a survivor.

In the inventive words of leading Torah scholar and historian Rabbi Berel Wein: “Moses’ name was thankfully not one of those read out at Yad VaShem!”

Moshe was not history’s first Holocaust survivor.  Noah was.  However Noah couldn’t live with the knowledge that he and his family alone were chosen to continue living while all others drowned.  His “solution” was to escape from the world, to become a recluse, to cultivate a vineyard rather than a field of wheat, to drown his sorrows in the intoxicating substance he produced and to not sire any more children.  (See my Noah essay in Fragments Of The Hammer.)

Moses, on the other hand, growing up half-Egyptian half-Hebrew, was aware of the drowning in the Nile of his infant contemporaries (he would have been in a class of one in his Jewish kindy) and the culpability of those among whom he resided. He had every reason to feel impossibly conflicted, to feel incapable of living with his past and unable to envision a future. Instead he determines not only to live but to make a difference.  He goes out among his brother Israelites and saves one of them from an Egyptian sadist.  He rescues a bunch of Midianite girls from their abusers. He lovingly tends the sheep of his employer-turned-father-in-law and ventures deep into the wilderness in search of a lost one. He hears the call of his Creator at a burning bush and turns aside in reverence to look.  And he merits to be the man chosen to make the greatest difference in the world of any human being who ever lived. And all because he chose to survive, to affirm life and not to escape from it.  What other name could he possibly bear other than Moshe – the one who was drawn from the water, was privileged to be given life as an infant and chose life as a man!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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