Who is the star of the Exodus narrative? Certainly, multiple valid answers exist: Moshe, God, the Jewish people, Pharaoh — it really depends on one’s perspective. Herein we shall examine the man Moshe 1 .
We begin with the following episode:
And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Yet one plague more will I bring upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence; when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether. Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’ And the LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and also the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
One verse stands out as not really fitting in with the rest. The final verse that speaks about the Egyptians finding favor with the Jewish people seems out of place, especially with the seemingly extraneous clause about Moshe being “very great in Egypt, and in the eyes of the people”. To add to this: Why does the posuk single out the servants of Pharaoh? Was “very great in the land of Egypt” alone not enough? Further, what is the purpose of the apparently unnecessary word “האיש”, “the man,” before Moshe’s name?
What would have been lost had the verse left out the word “האיש”? The Torah needs to specify the man Moshe? As opposed to the turtle Moshe?
Let us now take a look at some other examples of this phenomena.
When Miriam and Aaron spoke lashon haRah about Moshe, asking rhetorically if Moshe was the only one who was capable of communicating with God, the posuk states as follows:
And the man Moses was very humble, more than all men that were upon the face of the earth.
As another example: before Moshe’s death, as he blesses the Jewish people, the Torah states as follows:
And this is the blessing that Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.
At this climactic and defining moment of Moshe’s life, the Torah could easily have referred to him as a “servant of God”, or some such terminology, but it instead continues the theme of Moshe being a “man”. It is as if the Torah has given this title to Moshe — but why?
The simplest, and most obvious, explanation is that the Torah is stressing that Moshe is indeed just that — a man. He is flesh and blood like all other humans. He is not a God, nor is he some sort of supernatural being. He is a man.
Certainly, this concept is a major dividing line between Judaism and many other religions (and even Messianic Chabad). The simple fact of the matter is that the deification of Moshe was always a concern, and the Torah thusly repeatedly stresses the fact that, as great as he was, Moshe was still a human being. The constant stressing of this point is to be expected considering just how seemingly superhuman, and even Godly, Moshe seemed to be: He was the only one to ever speak to God “face to face”; Maharal explains that Moshe’s speech impediment was due to the fact that his mouth — the intersection of body and soul; where holy thoughts and ideas are turned into realia and action — was imbalanced in favor of soul; Moshe was also seemingly capable of staying atop a mountain for forty days and nights sans any food or drink.
Moshe was impossible in many ways — he was indeed Godly. Thus, the Torah stresses over and over that we ought not confuse an extraordinary man with a deity. At the end of the day, Moshe was a man of this Earth.
When Moshe first encountered the burning bush he did not instantly arrive at the conclusion that it was an act of God:
And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’
Moshe was curious about how such a thing could be possible, but his first response was to attempt to understand it from a naturalistic perspective. He did not jump to posit Divine intervention before necessary.
Moshe was a man that wanted to understand this world. He was a man that understood well the concept of lo baShamayim hi, “the Torah is not in heaven”. We witness this trait again when Moshe takes advice from Yisro despite the fact that at that point in time he was already receiving advice from God Himself. In accepting such council, Moshe displayed the very opposite of infallibility.
Moshe was very much a man. He was willing to admit his wrongdoings and shortcomings. Thus, another way to read the Torah’s use of “האיש” is that it is a reminder that Moshe was very much a human being with his own shortcomings, was capable of making mistakes, and further, was ready to admit this.
There is, however, yet another meaning to the word “man”, namely the characterization of certain acts as “being a man”.
Famously, Moshe witnessed an Egyptian man and a Jewish man fighting:
And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he killed the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
Moshe recognized that no man nearby was going to stop the fighting, and so Moshe strove to be that man. No one was going to step up to the plate, and so it was, in the end, Moshe himself that took action.
It is stated in Pirkei Avos 2 : “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The thrust of this expression is simply: “if no one else is going to get it done, do it yourself.” The obvious question, then, is why the unnecessarily poetic phrasing involving the term “man”? The answer, of course, is that the Mishnah is not explaining how we are to act during a one-time occurrence, but is rather instructing a general mindset. We are to operate always with the mindset of a “man.”
When one is a miracle worker it is easy to become confused about from whence the miracles derive. Certainly, it would become all-too-easy to let the power, attention, and fame go to one’s head. When it comes to Moshe, however, the posuk is unequivocal. “האיש משה” means that Moshe’s name, his persona, came only secondary to the simple fact that first and foremost he was a man.
Does your reputation precede you, or do you precede your reputation? So many strive to build up their names, and then fill in the blanks by living up to their constructed personas. This is not the way that we are meant to live. Moshe was first and foremost a man; only then was he “Moshe”.
When it comes to celebrities, it is most often true that from afar they are adored, but the closer one gets the less this is true. The opposite is very much the case with, say, great Rabbinic personalities. As a population we are only vaguely aware of these great men — but those closest to these sorts of individuals have an even greater respect for them.
The Meshech Chochmah explains that true greatness radiates outwards. Those closest perceive the most, and it spreads out from there. In response to the questions we posed at the outset, the reason the Torah takes the time to state that Moshe was universally liked was to make it clear that it was not the miracles the people were in awe of, but Moshe himself. Indeed, this appreciation of Moshe radiated from his inner circle where it was most strong — amongst the “servants of Pharaoh” with whom he grew up, and who witnessed him up close — out to the entire nation.
Moshe was Moshe not because of his miracles, but because first and foremost he was a man of integrity. He was very much “האיש משה”.