A common strand unites the three incidents recorded in the Torah from Moshe’s early life prior to Hashem’s visit to him at the burning bush. In the first instance, Moshe sees an Egyptian taskmaster oppressing a Jewish slave, prompting Moshe to kill the Egyptian and conceal his body. The following day, Moshe observes two Jews quarreling, triggering Moshe’s rebuke of one Jew for his physical assault of the other. In the final instance, Moshe acts as savior toward the seven daughters of Yitro, saving them from the Midianite shepherds who attempt to banish them and their sheep from the water troughs (Shemot 2:11-17). In each of these instances, Moshe observes an aggrieved party who suffers at the hands of another, and he proactively intercedes on behalf of the victim with heroic action and speech.
Despite the common strand that weaves the three narratives together, important differences also distinguish the three cases from one another. Nechama Leibowitz (New Studies in Shemot, pg. 40) captures this point in the following manner: “Each of these represents an archetype. First, [Moses] intervenes in a clash between a Jew and non-Jew, second, between two Jews, and third, between two non-Jews. In all three cases, Moses championed the just cause.”
The distinguishing features of the three events can also be cast in different categories. In the first instance, Moshe intervenes in order to assist the victim of sexual manipulation and abuse. Rashi (Shemot 2:11 s.v. Makkeh) provides context for understanding the Egyptian taskmaster’s violent blows that are recorded in the text. Rashi, based on the Midrash, identifies the Egyptian taskmaster’s physical attraction toward the Jewish slave’s wife as the ultimate impetus for his oppressive actions. The Egyptian taskmaster deceivingly lured the Jewish slave from his home one night and posed as the woman’s husband in the slave’s absence. Upon returning to his home following the fraudulent intimate encounter between his wife and the Egyptian impostor, the Jewish slave immediately detected the Egyptian taskmaster’s deception and manipulation of his wife. The slave’s detection earned him the punishing blows he receives in the field the following day.
In the second instance, Moshe witnesses the imminent physical assault of a fellow Jew, sparking his moralizing message of “Lamah Takkeh Rei’echa?” “Why do you hit your fellow?” (Shemot 2:13). In this case, Moshe intervenes on behalf of a victim of physical assault and abuse.
In the final episode, Moshe intercedes on behalf of Yitro’s seven daughters who are shepherding their father’s sheep. The underlying motive behind the shepherds’ objection to Yitro’s daughters filling the water troughs is not recorded in the text; the Torah simply writes, “The shepherds came and drove them away.” Ramban (Shemot 2:16-19 s.v. VaTavona) explains that the shepherds had priority on a daily basis to feed and draw water for their own sheep first, prior to Yitro’s daughters. On this particular day, though, Yitro’s daughters arrive early to the well and figure that they can successfully feed and draw water for their own sheep prior to the shepherds’ arrival. After the daughters fill the water troughs, though, the shepherds suddenly appear on the scene and proceed to drive the women away, ensuring the preservation of the proper sequence. Moshe, who witnesses the shepherds’ thuggery, realizes that the water in the troughs rightfully belongs to Yitro’s daughters, and as a result, he feels compelled to protest this act of Chamas (thievery). Financial corruption and theft, then, impel Moshe to act in this final instance.
Moshe’s spirit of justice, his impulse to defend the victim, Jew and non-Jew alike, and his fight against sexual, physical, and financial abuses are the defining qualities that the Torah seeks to highlight in the future savior of Israel prior to his selection. In truth, this very quality was embedded in Moshe’s name from infancy, a name that portended his future character and role as savior of the Jewish people. Pharaoh’s daughter (or Yocheved, according to the Chizkuni) bestowed the name “Moshe” on the young baby on account of the fact “that I drew him out of the water” (Shemot 2:10). Several commentators note, though, that Moshe’s name should have been “Mashuy,” “drawn,” rather than “Moshe,” “drawing.” Chizkuni (Shemot 2:10 s.v. VaTikra) and Seforno (ad loc.) both explain that the name “Moshe” was given instead to foretell that just as Moshe was drawn out of a situation of crisis, so too will he “Memalet UMoshe Et Acheirim MiTzarah,” “spare and draw others out of distress.”
Moshe’s sensitivity, principled spirit of justice, and impulse to act on behalf of the aggrieved distinguishes him as the most suitable leader and savior for the Jewish people. Hashem appears to Moshe in the next chapter in the form of the burning “Seneh,” an image that invokes Hashem’s lowering of himself to a low-lying bush, as if to say, “Imo Anochi BeTzarah,” “I am with him in his distress” (Rashi, Shemot 3:2 s.v. MiToch, based on Tehillim 91:15). Recognition of and sensitivity toward the needs of other human beings are the first steps in the process of relief and redemption. In that image and with that message, Hashem initiates His communication with the future savior of the Jewish people. It is an image and message that surely resonates with Moshe, given the defining characteristics that the initial recorded episodes of his life depict.