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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Moshe and His Brothers

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on January 8, 2015)
Topics: Shemot

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The beginning of the book of Shemot serves as a mirror image to the end of the book of Breishit. Breishit ends with Yosef’s promise to his brothers: “Behold, I will die; and God will surely remember – pakod yifkod – you, and bring you out of this land” (Breishit, 50:24). So it is when God gives Moshe his charge that it is these words that Moshe is told to bring to the people: “Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, the Lord, God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, of Yitzchak, and of Yaakov, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely remembered – pakod pakaditi – you and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Shemot, 3:16). The redemption that Moshe ushered in, then, is the fulfillment of the promise made centuries earlier by Yosef to his brothers. The story of the descent and entrenchment will find its reversal in the story of the exodus and return.

This mirror imaging plays out not only in terms of the story of the nation, but also in terms of Yosef and Moshe themselves. These two characters are not often compared, but when one looks closely, one sees many interesting parallels. Yosef, remember, leads the entire people – if only for a short period of time – out of Egypt to bury Yaakov in Canaan. And what is Moshe doing at the climax of the exodus, when the people begin their march toward the land of Canaan? “And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him; for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away from here with you” (13:19). Moshe is doing on the national level what Yosef did on a smaller scale when he led his immediate family out to bury Yaakov.

This act of Moshe momentarily turns our gaze away from the national narrative and restores it to the story of a person and a family; it brings us out of the book of Shemot and back into the book of Breishit. It reminds us that the story of the exodus is also the end of the story of Yosef.  It is restoring Yosef to the land from which he had been estranged and to the family with which he had never regained a true sense of peace and wholeness.

This focus on the personal allows us to see more parallels between the lives of Moshe and Yosef. Yosef’s life story began with being the favored son of his father, with his reporting the evil deeds of his brothers to his father, with special clothing that marked his privileged status, and with dreams of future greatness. All of this resulted in the jealousy and enmity of his brothers and to his being sold to Midianites and brought down to Egypt. Moshe’s life story began in parallel, but also in opposing, ways. Moshe grew up outside his birth family, without a true father or mother at all. He undoubtedly had special clothing, royal Egyptian garments that marked his privileged status and his status as an outsider at the same time (consider how he was identified by Reuel’s daughters: “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds”). Whereas Yosef’s actions estrange him to his brothers, Moshe’s first act is to create and strengthen the bond with his brothers: “And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens” (2:11). Yosef was the insider moving out; Moshe was the outsider moving in.

When Yosef saw his brothers’ misdeeds, he reported them to his father with the possible consequence of their being punished or made to suffer. Moshe, however, did not initially see his brothers’ misdeeds but the misdeeds of an Egyptian overlord, and his reaction was to stand up and defend his brothers, to save them from their suffering. Even on the following day, when one Hebrew was unjustly beating another, he did not report the guilty party to Pharaoh but acted to resolve it on his own. Rather than exacerbating sibling rivalry as Yosef had, Moshe was attempting to end this rivalry and infighting. His attempt was met not only with resistance but hostility, and far from succeeding in fostering greater family unity, Moshe was forced to flee his family and the land. The goal of restoring true bonds of brotherhood was not to be easily accomplished.

Moshe thus runs to Midyan to escape Egypt, much as a similar enmity caused Yosef to be sold to the Midianites and brought down to Egypt. There Moshe marries the daughter of the kohen Midyan, the priest of this foreign country, just as Yosef had married the daughter of kohen On, the priest of his foreign country. Moshe has two sons just as Yosef had two sons. Here, however, the parallels diverge. For while Yosef called his first son Menashe, “for God has made me forget all my travails and all my father’s house” (Breishit, 41:51), Moshe calls his first son Gershon, saying, “I was a stranger in a foreign land” (Shemot, 2:22). Yosef had been pushed out of his family and was trying to forget his travails, set down roots, and make a home for himself in his adopted country. Moshe, in contrast, is not rebuffed. He feels estranged not from his family but from the land where he is currently forced to live away from his family. And so it is with the names of the second sons. The name of Yosef’s second son reflects a certain degree of success, perhaps presaging further entrenchment in the land. The name of Moshe’s second son, however, reflects God’s saving power: “And the second son he called Eliezer, for the God of my father was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh,” (18:4), presaging the redemption that was soon to come.

The reversal of the descent to Egypt – the redemption of the Exodus – would come through the reversal of the estrangement from family and one’s ancestral land. It would come from Moshe’s refusal to settle down, from forcing his his way back to be with his people to protect and defend them. Thus, when the time comes to return to Egypt, Moshe says to Yitro, “let me go now and return to my brothers who are in Egypt and see ha’odam chayim, if they are still alive.” It is this, his connection to his brothers, his people – in addition, of course, to the divine charge – which compels him to return. Moshe’s request to Yitro echoes a verse from the Yosef story: “Is it well with your elderly father of whom you spoke,” he asks them, “ha’odenu chai, is he still alive?” (Breishit, 43:27). Yosef’s concern is primarily with his father and this concern, for whatever reason, never led to any proactive action on his part. Moshe’s concern is different – it is a concern for his brothers, for his entire family, and it is his acting on this and returning to them that ultimately brings about the redemption.

There is one final point that bears noting. Moshe started his adult life with a drive to connect to and protect his brothers. What he resisted was becoming God’s representative, the person through whom the divine redemption would come. Yosef never had a problem with this role. He readily saw God as working through him as the conveyor of the divine interpretation of dreams, or as the vehicle for bringing the people down to Egypt so that they would survive the famine. Yosef’s life started with the dreams, with the divine vision. It was a vision was built just on his relationship to God, not to his family, and it brought in its wake much grief. Moshe’s vision of God came only later in life. But when it came, and when he finally accepted it, it emerged from the bonds of family and of brotherhood, from a willingness to risk one’s own safety and security for the welfare of the people.

Shabbat Shalom!