Moshe the First BT

By Yaakov Eric Ackland

Like most BT’s, Moshe is born a stranger in a strange land. He’s born a Jew in a powerful non-Jewish culture, and though he has the love of his family, he’s from a very early age set adrift downstream in the dominant culture with his parents’ faint hope for his survival as a Jew. He even grows up bearing an Egyptian name, and although he was given a Jewish name by his parents, he never uses it, even after becoming “reaffiliated.” much later in life. And though he knows that he’s Jewish, he lives the life of a Jewish Egyptian Prince in this dominant culture. He grows up with a dual-identity, divided loyalties, and likely in his youth felt more Egyptian than Jewish. As one of the elite, approval, success, power, and comfort are his for the taking as long as he stays on track and doesn’t try to shake things up.

In the first recorded episode of his adult life Moses, at around 40 years old emerges from his palace, sees the suffering of the Israelites, and kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. He awakens to the fact of suffering existing outside his sheltered world, and perhaps it is the first inkling of a real bond with the Jewish people. Over the next several episodes, Moshe intervenes for justice between two Jews fighting, between two sets of strangers (his future wife and sisters-in-law to be and the sheppards who were harassing them at the well) and then (in the Midrash) he goes after the one sheep that was lost, and carries it tenderly back to the herd. Like many a secular Jew today, Moshe is upset by any form of injustice or suffering, not just amongst his own people, but for that of (apparently) all sentient beings, and more uncommonly, acts on his perceptions. And Moshe acts almost instinctively; he does the right thing, solely because it feels like the right thing to do (Interestingly, this story of Moshe going forth from his sheltered life, witnessing suffering, and then throwing off everything he knew to leave his home and experience life and suffering directly, before ultimately returning to enlighten and free his people has an Eastern parallel, in the life of Buddha.).

So Moses has lived straddling two worlds, neither of which is truly his “home.” He’s a double exile. After killing the Egyptian, and abandoning Egypt, Moses enters his third level of exile: he’s now a Jewish Egyptian Prince in an alien land: he’s lost the protection of his comfortable life, and he’s disillusioned: it seems that justice doesn’t pay in this world: he’s an outlaw with a price on his head, and he had no gratitude from the man whose life he’d saved, or the people of the man he’d saved. Despite the disillusionment though, he persists in doing what’s right, because it is right. In essence he’s dropped out of the dominant culture, as a significant number of secular Jews have long done. After his third act of justice though, by defending the women at the well, he’s offered one as his bride, and he accepts. Maybe justice is rewarded in this life, he now thinks, maybe now I can have a comfortable life. And like a typical secular Jew, he’s met a nice gentile girl, and only subsequently presumably persuades her to convert (although her conversion isn’t documented in the text.) He settles down and builds a conventionally successful life amongst strangers.

But then Moshe encounters G-d who commands him to return to Egypt and save his people, and bring them to the land where they were intended to live, to the culture they were intended to live in. And very likely, it is Moses’s keen sense of justice, and his willingness to risk his life to live his values that has qualified him for the job. And like the average secular Jew first encountering the idea of Divine commandedness, Moshe argues with Hashem, in essence saying, “Sounds great, a noble task, but not for me. You’ve got the wrong guy.” For Moshe, though concerned about justice, though caring for the oppressed and for their suffering, has thus far been motivated entirely from within to do good. He’s valued his autonomy and perhaps he’s even become enamored of his status as an outlaw and a rebel; as someone who has done things his own way, and has made a life for himself different than that of his peers. Unlike Abraham, the paradigmatic Knight of Faith who unhesitatingly was ready to sacrifice his son upon G-d’s command, Moshe hesitates and passively stalls. Humans resist even that what we wish to do, if it is demanded of us. We like to be flattered into thinking that we have a choice. Any book on modern management will confirm this. Moshe’s refusal may be couched in terms of modesty, of unfitness for the job, and our tradition states that Moshe was the humblest man who ever lived, but a little deeper psychology might reveal these further causes of resistance: fear of loss of comfort and status, loss of his self-identity, loss of autonomy, and fear of failure.

Moses protests and stalls Hashem five times before he accedes. And even after all this, he goes and asks permission from his father-in-law to leave: almost as if he were hoping his father-in-law would deny him permission. Really, if Hashem tells you to do something, do you have really need to ask permission of anyone else? Many a BT has similarly learned what he or she is supposed to do in a certain instance, argued with Hashem, argued with Rabbis, been finally convinced that it must be done, and still sought for pretexts to delay or abstain committing. During the time Moses is back in Egypt, he dickers with Hashem another three times. We can even see a parallel between the repeatedly hardened heart of Pharaoh, which despite repeated oppressive miracles keeps rebounding to that same place of resistance and rebellion and the as yet not fully submitted heart of Moses despite having spoken directly with God. This parallel may be highlighted by the similarities of Moshe’s first response to Hashem’s command, “Who am I that I should got to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” and Pharaoh’s first response to Moshe’s demand: “Who is Hashem that I should heed his voice to send out Israel?” Why the parallel? Perhaps to highlight how much Moshe is still Egyptian as well as Jewish, and can’t deny or purge himself of his past.

Just as the contemporary Jew who finally encounters Hashem, and Torah, and the idea of commandedness ultimately strives to submit (if he or she is intellectually honest) so too did Moshe. And just as it is axiomatic in Judaism that G-d never gives us a challenge we can’t meet, Moshe must have begun the process of internalizing the understanding that with Hashem’s help he cannot fail, and must have felt an exhilaration at finally having discovered the proper outlet for his passion and talent. And so he uprooted from his third level of his exile to head to his fourth level of exile: back to his “home” turf, but this time with a two-fold mission: to punish Pharaoh and to free his people, and this time his sense of justice is subordinated to Hashem’s sense of justice, and is thus tightly and properly focused.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Moshe, like many modern people who first encounter G-d’s repeated hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Torah and the unleashing of these awful plagues upon all of Egypt, may have felt instinctively that this was a bit over-the-top and unnecessarily ruthless, –especially as he must have had many fond memories and ties of affection to that dominant culture and to some of the people within. Under the spirit of submission to Divine commandedness though, Moshe did what was required of him. And though the mission must have seemed impossibly daunting, he succeeded in bringing forth a portion of his people out from Egypt.

And yet now he was in a fifth level of exile, and the Israelites as yet were unhabituated to the idea of commandedness; not habituated to Jewish culture; even resentful of having been pulled out of their familiar enslavement to the dominant culture. They perpetually lag at least a step or two behind Moshe; and they rebel against his leadership –and this stage lasts for an entire generation. They encounter Hashem directly, and even then, they can’t entirely subordinate their will to his; they can’t put their full trust in Him and in Moshe. Just as modern Baalei Tshuva struggle to acclimate themselves to Jewish Law -Halacha, to Orthodox cultural norms, and may even engage in periodic lapses of adherence or in rebellious behavior, and may cling to mementos, music, and memories of the culture they were raised in, so too did the Children of Israel, and yet they ultimately stayed within the fold, and had children: FFB’s who were better acclimated to the Law and to the culture, though still having some taint of their parent’s home culture, and who were prepared to fight the battles necessary to settle the promised land, so that the third and fourth generations could grow up as they were intended, in their home culture, in their homeland, as whole-hearted Jews. Moshe himself never got to see the promised land: he died in exile.

Perhaps we can take from this admittedly non-traditional analysis a greater understanding that Hashem knows what we’re going through as BTs; that He’s seen it all before. Moshe and our other ancestors went though this same struggle to subordinate themselves to Hashem and to Torah. They went through stages; took two steps forward and one back, but resolutely strove to continue to advance towards the goal. BTs, along with FFBs are still in exile, and still 90% of the Jewish people are completely immersed in the culture of Egypt (Western culture), and we ourselves will never be 100% free of it’s allure and influence, and will always feel split between cultures, fully at home nowhere, often uncomfortable, often struggling, and perhaps it will only be our grandchildren or great-grandchildren who will be completely prepared to live a comprehensive, fully immersed Jewish life, but out job is clear, if daunting –as daunting to us as Moshe’s was to him: we need simultaneously to acclimate, learn, teach, and lead: we need to learn to bow our stubborn necks and subordinate our will to Hashem, and most crucially we need to rouse our brethren from their comfortable status as slaves of Egypt. We need to have them see that the discomfort of growth, of self-transformation, and of uprooting, of being prepared to spend a lifetime in the wilderness, is the most vital thing, and it begins when we begin to submit to Divine commandedness. We needn’t however beat ourselves up, and judge ourselves harshly at our failure to be one hundred percent submitted and committed, for Hashem already knows how hard it is. If Moshe struggled and the Bnei Israel struggled, and they experienced Hashem more directly than anyone has since, then surely we, who are so far away from all that, can take some solace and sustenance from this. Moshe is our model.

11 comments on “Moshe the First BT

  1. BS”D

    3 Marcheshvon 5773

    Dear Readers of Beyond B.T.

    After a discussion with an acquaintance in my yeshiva, I was wondering if anybody knows if Moshe Rabbeinu had assistance in staying holy and upright from a religious family member as he grew up in Mitzrayim? Did any religious family member keep him pure and upright? In other words, did Moshe knew all along in Mitzrayim that he had to keep Jewish; not that he suddenly discovered in his adulthood that he was Jewish?

    Awaiting your response.
    Yochonon Mayers
    Yerusholoyim, Eretz HoKoidesh.

  2. I am using a slightly different definition, thanks for the chance to clarify.

    Like Rav Weinberg, I’m distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures (which cause us to feel a certain commensurate quality of happiness.) To be more precise, I’m saying that the lower pleasures, the less spiritual pleasures, can ensnare us and prevent us from experiencing the higher ones -which may even appear as suffering. (I do actually think that in reality it can be misleading to talk about goodness and righteousness as “higher” pleasures because sometimes, perhaps even often, they can involve pain and sacrifice and lack of any tangible worldly approval or reward. Thus I find it less confusing to more conventionally contrast goodness with pleasure and happiness.) Others have suggested that this world is just a narrow bridge, a testing ground for the world to come, and that after the expulsion from Eden, humans can never expect to experience a sustained pure pleasure and happiness in this world until we reach the Messianic age, as much as Hashem may wish to give us/allow us to experience such thing. G-d may well want us to be happy an have pleasure, but at at the expense of the good. And He’s left it in our hands to be good. And once we’ve achieved collective goodness, then G-d gets to allow us this pure spiritual happiness, which was his original intention for us.

    Good Shabbos,

  3. Happiness and pleasure aren’t bad things, and it’s natural to want them, but they’re the primary distractors and detractors from goodness.

    The Ramchal says that giving man spiritual pleasure and happiness is the reason G-d created the world, so I’m assuming you’re using a different definition of pleasure and happiness.

  4. Thank you for your kind words Ezzie and Steve.

    I think it certainly could be plausibly argued that Avraham was the first BT. I would suggest though that while Avraham brought together a lot of extant traditions, and did it primarily through the power of his own intellect and intuition, he still stands more as the paradigm of the Innovator, Iconoclast (literally), and Independent thinker, than as the Returnee, Penitent, Law-giver and Liberator that Moshe represents to me. Hence Avraham’s affectionate title: “Avinu,” our Father; he was the first “Ivri”, the first “other,” arguably the first Jew rather than a Jew rediscovering his distinctive people and traditions. In a profane analogy, whereas James Naismith was the “father” of basketball, Michael Jordan may well have been the Moses of Basketball (excepting for Mr. Malone of course), bringing fans back, and moving the game forward. Jordan would have been nowhere without Naismith: Without a game already formed, and without generations of players an their lore and talents preceding him.

    I’d like to chime in regarding the current discussion on whether Judaism ought to make us happy, as this was part of the point of this article on Moses: that if we look at the lives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, if we look at the lives of our ancestors in the Torah, and the lives of Jews and other human beings great and small, religious and irreligious throughout the centuries, we’ll see that they had enormous struggles and challenges and were almost certainly very unhappy at many points in their lives. This is what my profile of Moses emphasizes. There’s no real reason to expect that we should be any different. There may well be comforting things about religion, and it may make us happier at some times in some ways, but the goal of religion isn’t happiness; it’s holiness; it’s goodness. And sometimes these things may be antithetical to what we normally would consider happiness. Rather, we need to understand that, as Rav Noach Weinberg has taught, that there are higher and lower levels of pleasure/happiness, and we can sensitize, reeducate and train ourselves to be happier when we’re striving for goodness and holiness, and by non-Torah standards we’re suffering. Ultimately, if we make happiness our primary criteria for a life worth living, an we place the cause of unhappiness outside of ourselves we’re bound to be almost perpetually dissatisfied and unhappy. I find Dennis Prager’s belief, that we have a moral obligation to be happy, a very compelling one. And this means detaching happiness from causation or dependence on anything other than our will and choice to be happy. We can see though Victor Frankel’s writing too, that one can choose to be happy and good and optimistic in the midst of hell. Easier said than done, of course. But possible. And possibility empowers.

    In my own experience, Judaism has simultaneously facilitated my happiness in some respects and less so in others. It has in some ways made my life easier and in some respects made it much more challenging. Often it has felt like a yoke of oppression, and yet it has also felt like the lifting of a burden and an undeserved blessing. I persist though not because I seek happiness exclusively (we’re all driven by this) but because I seek goodness and truth. That I’m not fully submitted, that I see so much that rubs me the wrong way within Orthodoxy is almost besides the point, though at times it may be all that I can see. By working on choosing to be happy regardless of externals though, I aim/hope to free up my energies and strength to do the right thing even when it’s painful, dangerous, and requires enormous sacrifice. I always think of those amazing human beings who saved and harbored Jews during the Holocaust, for weeks, months, and years at incredible risk to themselves and their families, fighting every instinct of self-preservation, every instinct to willfully be ignorant of the suffering of others in order to preserve one’s comfort zone, one’s happiness, and surely the majority of their neighbors did just that -and who can really blame them? Who among us can say we would have risked as much? Happiness wasn’t their objective. Righteousness was. To me, this is the key criteria and the standard by which we should gage the quality of our lives. Happiness and pleasure aren’t bad things, and it’s natural to want them, but they’re the primary distractors and detractors from goodness.

  5. Thanks for a fascinating article. However, one can argue that Avraham Avinu was indeed the first BT.

  6. Hi David,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Your observations are fair and accurate.

    Of course we can’t know what happened in all the intervening years between when Moshe left Egypt and the time he finally encountered Hashem, and there must have been many intervening spiritual attainments, and it wasn’t my intent to downgrade Moshe’s moral or spiritual stature, which had to be beyond exceptional.

    Moshe was a human being however, and as such, there is a commonality of experience which others can relate to, even if only in the way that a very ordinary person can draw sustenance from the life-story of an exceptional human being in seeing the struggles that that person overcame. I doubt the average reader of biographies of great and powerful human beings, feels that they’ll ever be likely to achieve what someone like, say, Lincoln achieved, but they can draw strength and knowledge from the fact of his humble origins, his numerous struggles and setbacks before attaining to the presidency, as well as the strategies thatenabled him to survive and thrive, even as their own struggles may appear to be much less laden with cosmic consequence.

    So I wasn’t so much saying Moshe was an average, ordinary, intermarried secular activist who just happened to encounter Hashem, as much as I was suggesting that people such as BT’s, even as much as they’re a mere shadow of what Moshe was, can still derive inspiration from his story, as he was, after all, a human being too. I think we often forget the humanity of our greats, but a simple reading of the text shows us his humanity, and of all the Torah figures, Moses is perhaps the one that I think BT’s could learn the most from.



  7. Eric,

    I think your analysis, albeit non-traditional, has many important insights. Yasher Koach!

    One thing I would take issue with. You left me with the impression that you’re portraying Moshe prior to the Burning Bush as analogous to an intermarrying secular Jew who’s concerned about issues of social justice.

    But a quick look at Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah about the requirements to be a prophet, and the later description in the Kuzari, shows that any such comparison is impossible. A prophet (aside from Bilaam, for certain reasons) had to be at the highest attainment in character development, and specifically had to work hard at attaining closeness to Hashem. In effect, he had to literally work his way through all the chapters of Mesilas Yesharim to reach the highest level, Ruach HaKodesh.

    Avraham was 75 years old before Hashem spoke to him, and Moshe was 80. They worked long and hard to achieve the level of prophecy.

    It’s not like George Burns appearing to assistant supermarket manager John Denver:,_God!

  8. Hi Bob,

    Thank you for your questions.

    I don’t believe science and technology are inherently “western;” they work universally, and need not be rejected out of hand. Art and music are also universal, although as with technology and science, some varieties/applications of art and music can be subversive of, in conflict with, and/or detrimental to our values. To the best of my knowledge modern management and economic/social organization needn’t necessarily be in conflict with Torah either. As a rank newcomer to observant Judaism I don’t presume to know exactly by what basis aspects of modern life need be accepted or rejected, but it is clear to me that a comprehensively rejectionist approach is absurd, and I think even the most ultra of the ultra aren’t going to reject airplanes or post-it notes just because our forefathers didn’t have the capacity to fly or to almost effortlessly and capriciously spit out tiny yellow adhesive office memos. The fact is, there is such a thing as progress, and I can’t see that Torah is anti-progress; Torah’s more subtle than that.

    When I was referring to Western culture, I was trying to encapsulate rather the general hedonic orientation of the West in contrast to the duty-based ethical orientation of Judaism. I was contrasting a life within Orthodox Judaism with a wholly secular life. The main point I was attempting to make was that becoming an observant Jew is a lifetime challenge, and it will only likely be our grandchildren who feel fully at home in this sector of the world; and that both Moses and the Children of Israel while in the desert had the same difficulties, and that this should be reassuring and inspiring to us.

    I’m just glad you didn’t call me on all the typos!

    Thanks again.



  9. Yaakov,

    Are you saying that we would ideally reject “Western culture” 100% as part of our spiritual growth, and that only our weakness or transitional status stands in the way? In your way of thinking, should Jews ultimately strive to reject (for example):
    1. All Western science?
    2. All Western technology?
    3. All Western music and art?
    4. All Western forms of management and economic/social organization?

    If not, where do you draw the line? By what process would we determine which, if any, features of these can actually enhance rather than detract from a Torah life?

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