This article is adapted from a shiur by Rav Yair Kahn.
In Parashat Shemot, we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu, who leads Bnei Yisrael throughout the majority of the latter four Sefarim of the Torah. Like any good hero, Moshe has an origin story. The Torah provides us with a detailed description of his birth, followed by his youth in Pharaoh's palace. Despite being raised in the royal palace, Moshe seemingly knows of his Jewish heritage; when he encounters a fellow Jew suffering at the hands of an Egyptian taskmaster, he kills the taskmaster and then flees Egypt (Shemot 2:11-15). After escaping Egypt, Moshe runs to Midyan, rescues the daughters of Yitro, and then marries Tzipporah (Shemot 2:15-21). However, something peculiar happens. The Torah seems to skip a large chapter of Moshe’s life, as the story resumes with Moshe encountering Hashem in the burning bush, by which time Moshe is already eighty years old. Despite all of the details the Torah gives in telling Moshe’s story, it skips about sixty years of his life! While the Torah is not a history textbook, nor is it a biography of Moshe, it would still seem necessary to clarify what happened during the missing sixty years of this great Jewish leader’s life.
There are many tales the Midrash assigns to this time gap. The most famous story is the one cited in the lost book of Divrei HaYamim Shel Moshe Rabbeinu, the Chronicles of Moshe. It is the story of how Moshe becomes a king for forty years after suppressing a rebellion led by Bil’am. However, the Ibn Ezra HeAroch (Shemot 4:20 s.v. VaYikach) says that the Chronicles of Moshe should not be trusted as a historical document.
The simplest way of interpreting this time gap is that Moshe Rabbeinu was in Midyan the entire time. However, the Torah’s description of Moshe’s time spent there is very vague. The Torah relates, “VaYo’el Moshe Lashevet Et HaIsh,” “Moshe agreed (lit. swore) to stay with [Yitro]” (Shemot 2:21). However, what exactly he swears is very unclear.
We propose a possible answer to this question based on the Yalkut Shimoni. When Moshe names his son Gershom, he explains that he gives this name because “Geir Hayiti BeEretz Nochriyah,” “I was an alien in a foreign land” (Shemot 2:22). The Yalkut Shimoni (Siman 169) comments on the last two words. It states, shockingly, that Moshe swears to consign his son to idolatry in order to receive Tzipporah’s hand in marriage. What is the reason for this seemingly baseless accusation? Looking closer at the text with regard to Moshe’s sons, something seems strange. Moshe names Gershom for being a stranger in a foreign land and names his next son Eliezer because Hashem saved Moshe from Pharaoh. This seems out of order, as Moshe is first saved from Pharaoh and only afterward is a stranger in a foreign land.
Perhaps the order of these two names conveys the state of mind of Moshe at the time. Initially, Moshe views himself as a mere fugitive and views the events that forced him to leave Egypt as a forced exile. He has to flee to escape execution by Pharaoh, in whose house he previously lived. He is cut off not only from the court of Pharaoh but from his Jewish brethren as well. He has no one; he is all alone. But then Yitro agrees to take him in, and in return Moshe agrees to raise his son in Yitro’s religion. For the next sixty years, Moshe is convinced that he is cut off from the Jewish people.
Suddenly, at the end of those sixty years, everything changes. Moshe Rabbeinu comes across the burning bush, from which God’s voice calls out to tell Moshe that He was the God of Moshe’s forefathers and that Moshe’s brethren in Egypt are suffering. Moshe has been chosen to save them. Moshe is no longer that same stranger in a foreign land; instead, he is now firmly re-rooted and connected back to the Jewish people. He will be the one to free the Jewish people from slavery.
Not only does this give Moshe something to look forward to in the future, but it also gives him new insight into past events. After encountering Hashem in the burning bush, Moshe is able to look back and say, “For the Lord of my father was my aid, and he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Shemot 18:4).
The question still remains: did Moshe truly dedicate his son to idolatry? The answer is not so simple, as there are indications from the idolatrous behavior of Gershom’s son, mentioned elsewhere in Tanach (e.g. Shofetim 18:30), that Moshe may have actually made that vow. However, the Yalkut Shimoni more likely refers allegorically to Moshe’s outlook on his own life. He is, after all, a stranger in a foreign land where everyone else serves idols. While he may not serve idols himself, Moshe does not necessarily predispose his children, born in this environment, to Jewish practices. We can corroborate this from the later story where Moshe and family enter an inn and Moshe is attacked by a snake sent by Hashem until Tzipporah circumcises her son (Shemot 4:24-26). It is clear from this story that Moshe has not yet circumcised one of his sons, which hints at Moshe’s lack of hope and faith in G-d during his time of despair in Midyan. But once Moshe encounters Hashem, he turns his life around, and this feat testifies to the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu.