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Parashat Shemot - Moses' path to greatness. Building an identity

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

Most characters in the Bible have a backstory, but Moses has not only one, but two. Looking at chapter 2 of Exodus, we see a birth story where Moses is born to his biological mother, and a second story where Moses is “delivered” from the Nile by an Egyptian Princess. Dr. Yael Ziegler, a senior lecturer at Herzog College and Matan, illustrates this beautifully in her article

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Dr. Yael Ziegler, which was sponsored by Gloria Mosenkis and her family in memory of her father Herbert Smilowitz, Dr Ziegler explained that Moses has two birth stories from contradicting cultures , ambiguity in his name , leading to two conflicting identities.He was born to an Isrealite family yet he was raised by an Egyptian royal family.

Moses’ first act is to rescue an Israelite slave by killing an Egyptian. The next day, as he tries to bring peace between two Israelite slaves, he quickly learns that they consider him a stranger. He must figure out where he fits in. Is he an Israelite or an Egyptian. Does he belong to the group of slaves or to the Egyptian taskmasters? He does not find common ground with either group. When Moses runs away - it’s not only because he believes that Pharaoh will kill him. He runs to find his identity.

Before venturing out of the Palace on the day that he killed the Egyptian, Moses could have elected to stay in the palace and lived a life amongst royalty. And yet, he went out to his “brothers”. Most commentators agree that Moses sought to relate to his Israelite brothers. But Ibn Ezra claims that Moses went out to his Egyptian brothers. As Dr Ziegler says, Ibn Ezra’s view is audacious and astonishing, and yet demonstrates that Moses had a choice. He could have been an Egyptian Prince. So who was Moses? Israelite or Egyptian? Brother of slaves or one of the taskmasters?

To answer this, we can examine "Human Needs". In “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs”, Love and Belonging fall in the middle of the pyramid, and self-actualization is at the pinnacle. I prefer Tony Robbins' model of “Six Basic Needs” which include finding meaning and contributing to mankind.

Growing up, Moses had his physiological needs met in the palace, as well as his needs for security. Clearly, those were not enough for his soul. When he ventured out of the Palace on that fateful day, he was searching for more. Was his strongest longing for Connection and Love, or for Contribution and to protect others? Was he yearning to discover who his real brothers were, or who his real enemies were? Whatever it was - he needed something more.

Moses formed a third identity when he escaped to Midian. He sat at the well, knowing that in his family tree, love and marriage and new beginnings were found at the well. Although he was labeled an Egyptian, he considered himself a stranger in a strange land.

Upon arriving at Midian, Moses defended a group of daughters as they were tending their flock. He married into the family and took over watching the flock.

Moses, in the new identity of both shepherd and savior, neither oppressed or oppressor, is now ripe for the Call of God. Taking the best from each birth story, he is on his way to become a prophet and a leader. When we find ourselves in a position where our identity doesn't feel right, or our needs are not met and we can’t be true to ourselves, then we have choices. Like Moses we can find a new way to be true to ourselves. Moving countries, changing professions as Moses did are not always required. Sometimes a new mindset or reframing is all we need to seek out new avenues , opening ourselves for good things to come.

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