Rav Avi Goldberg
Former Rosh Kollel in Memphis (2008-2011)
Currently teacher at “Himelfarb” high school in Jerusalem
“And She Named Him Moses”
The birth of Moses and the name he was given are described in a special way in the Torah. As the Torah tells us, after the child was born, and could not be hidden in his own home any longer, his mother placed him in a basket on the Nile, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. His sister, Miriam, watching over her young brother from a distance, offered to take him to his mother, with whom he stayed until he was two years old. Only then was he returned to Pharaoh’s daughter. The Torah describes how Moshe was named, as follows:
“And the boy grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter. And he became her son. And she named him Moshe, saying that from the water I drew him [out]” (Exodus 2).
The commentators interpret this verse in different ways. It is important to note that it seems that Moshe did not receive his name until he was two years old. It is possible that he had another name beforehand (according to the Midrash), but that Pharaoh’s daughter gave him the name we all know and use — Moses. As the Orach Chaim also points out, unlike with the forefathers and the tribes, where the reasons for the names come first, in Moshe’s case, it appears after the name. Another pertinent question: the name Moshe means “to draw [others] from the water,” so why is it not “Mashuy” (drawn from the water)?
Some commentators, Ibn Ezra, for example, believe that Moshe was given an Egyptian name by Pharaoh’s daughter, which is translated in the Torah as Moshe (drawn from the water). As another option, he suggests that she gave him a Hebrew name since she either knew the language herself, or perhaps she consulted Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who told her how to express what she wanted to say in Hebrew.
The Chizkuni goes even further, proposing that Yocheved actually gave her son the name Moshe, and Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to the name and its meaning.
Similarly, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Pharaoh’s daughter consulted Yocheved about naming Moshe, as he writes:
“Not “Mashuy”, who was drawn from the water, she named him, but “Moshe” – a rescuer from the water. This might teach us about the intention the princess gave her adopted son, and the deep impression that shaped his character from early childhood. Naming him this way, she wanted to say: “Do not forget at any time that you were put into the water, and rescued by me.” Therefore, all of his life he should have a tender heart…, attentive to the suffering of others, and should always be a true savior in times of trouble, to be a “Moshe”.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s words largely match the Maharal’s interpretation (Gevurot Hashem, Chapter XVIII(:
“And I say that the name Moshe is teaching the main character of Moshe… virtue… [since he] is disposed of and removed from the water. And that since water has no form and shape … you should know that the greatness of Moses is the virtue of “shape” because he is distinct from [the] material and heavenly beings are distinct from materialism, and that is because Moses was “form” only, without material, and water… does not have its own form at all…”
Water, symbolizing fluids, is characterized by the fact that it is given its shape by a vessel, but has no shape of its own. Independent adults know how to create their own “form,” which is the value system controlling their lives. Those who are less independent and mature are more influenced by their surroundings, rather than their values.
Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, operated according to values! She did not just “flow” with the prevalent mood in Egypt, in which babies were thrown into the water, and Jewish slaves were beaten daily. She made a moral choice based on values. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch point out, she named her adopted son Moshe in order to form his character in a certain way.
It does not come as a surprise that when he grew up and saw his brethren’s hardship and suffering, Moshe, went out to them. The Torah describes three cases in which Moshe encountered injustice. His actions were guided by “shape,” or values and morals, and did not just “flow” with the stream of apathy and immorality. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Jew, he intervened despite the danger it posed to himself. When he saw two Jews fighting, he mediated between them. Even after fleeing the country to Midian, he acted according to just values, saving the girls there from the wicked shepherds, and even drawing water for them. Jethro noticed that the girls arrived early because Moshe opposed the “evil flow,” acting justly instead.
Do we have enough “form” these days? Do we act according to values, or do we tend to get carried away by the common “flow” of the surrounding culture?
Redemption will only come when we are able to stick to our holy traditions and values, and act accordingly. We should all strive to be people of “form,” rather than emphasizing materialistic values. That is the real freedom!