A period of eighty years transpires before Moshe is summoned to redeem his people. Moshe’s earliest appearance on the scene as an active adult was possibly at the age of twelve, or according to others, twenty or forty. Only two incidents are reported in the Torah regarding that time.
After going out and observing his brethren’s ‘burdens’, he reacts to an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew man, by striking him down and burying the evidence. The very next day Moshe takes to task a fellow Jew who is about to strike another Jew, who derogatorily tells Moshe to mind his own business, referring to his knowledge of Moshe having killed the Egyptian a day earlier. Moshe discovers the authorities are on the lookout for him, as his cover has now been exposed, and flees to Midyan to escape death at the hands of the Egyptians.
In the next depiction of the ‘life and times’ of Moshe, after settling in Midyan, he situates himself at the well and once again observes a troubling scene. The daughters of Yisro are attempting to water their sheep when other male shepherds interfere by taking advantage of them, preventing them from drawing the water, and seeking to drive them away. Moshe comes to their rescue and saves them.
Their father Yisro seeks Moshe out and gratefully offers his daughter Tzipporah as a wife. She mothers a child, and Moshe loyally tends to the sheep of Yisro. While pasturing the sheep, G-d appears to Moshe, at age of eighty, instructing him to go back to Egypt to begin the process of redemption.
This is all we know of that period — two thirds of Moshe’s life.
Clearly, the trait of Moshe ‘bearing the burden of his people’ — evident in these three episodes, is the hallmark of his persona, that earned him the role of ‘savior’.
Is it just a ‘chazakah’ of incidents, or is there a message and progression in these events?
Can the entire, possibly, sixty years of Moshe’s life in Midyan, be encapsulated within one story?
The verse reports how after settling in Midyan, he ‘sat at the באר — well’.
Why did he ‘sit at the well’?
The Midrash says that in the tradition of the patriarchs, Yitzchok and Yaakov, who met their spouses at the well, Moshe followed suit.
Was the well the local ‘meet the singles’ spot?
Certainly, the proximity to the well is there to teach us something profound.
Moshe’s first encounter reflected his sensitivity toward the pain of his fellow men, compelling him to react almost instinctively.
The verse describes how ‘he turned this way and that way and saw that there was no איש — man’. There is an ancient Midrash that interprets the verse to be stating Moshe’s utter shock that no one reacted. He ‘looked around’ and saw no one was ‘man enough’ to intervene and stand up to the Egyptian and save the Jew. (ילקוט מדרש תימן)
Moshe observed a world of apathy. He decided to take up the role to change society for the better by acting decisively.
Clearly though he wasn’t too convincing since the very next day, not only are his brethren oblivious to one another’s plight, but they are physically assaulting each other!
So, he decides to tackle one issue at a time seeking to admonish the perpetrators, hoping he will make his point. All Moshe accomplishes is to stoke even greater resentment towards him.
This tale echoes the famous words of the father of the Mussar Movement, Reb Yisroel Salanter, who was wont to say, “I first wanted to change the world, but found it too hard, so I tried to change my city. I couldn’t do that, so I tried to change my family. I finally realized I could only change myself.”
Moshe is forced to escape to Midyan, where he must undergo a long period of self-perfection, honing and forging his character to perfection.
In his final portrayal of ‘bearing the burden of others’ the Torah goes through a very detailed and confusing record of events.
Now the chief of Midyan had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flocks.
But the shepherds came, ויגרשום — and drove them away; so, Moshe arose ויושיען — and rescued them and watered צאנם — their flocks.
They came to their father Reuel, and he said, “Why have you come so quickly today?”
They replied, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the hand[s] of the shepherds, and he also drew [water] for us and watered the flocks.”
The verse states clearly that the daughters filled the troughs prior to the shepherds' arrival. Moshe succeeds in warding off the shepherds. It then states that he ‘watered’ their sheep. Why? Weren’t the troughs already full.
An additional issue is the use of the male gender when describing the shepherds driving away ‘them’ [the daughters] — ויגרשום, rather than the more accurate ויגרשון, connoting ‘them’ in the female gender.
Similarly, when describing Moshe watering their [the daughters], flocks, once again it reverts to צאנם, their (masculine) sheep, rather than the correct צאנן, their (feminine) sheep.
When discussing Moshe having saved ‘them’ [the daughters], it finally uses the correct grammar form of ויושיען — and rescued them (feminine).
Rav Zev Wolf Tenenbaum, who served in Verpelet, was a 19th century Hungarian rabbinic figure about whom the saintly Rav Zvi Hirsh of Liska, the famed author of Ach Pri Tevuah, attested had Torah revealed to him from Heaven, offers a brilliant solution to understanding these verses.
Moshe observed that the daughters had already filled the troughs. When the shepherds attempted to drive the daughters’ sheep away from the troughs, Moshe calmly confronted the shepherds convincing them to allow the young women to utilize what they had already exerted themselves to fill, promising the shepherds that after the ladies are done, he will gladly draw fresh water into the troughs for their sheep’s use. Instead of castigating them, he reasoned with them. They softened and readily agreed.
The verse can now be readily understood and grammatically correct.
But the shepherds came, [Moshe intervened by reasoning with them, offering to assist them with filling the troughs after the women finished] ויגרשום — and drove them away [Moshe succeeded in directing the ‘shepherds’ (masculine) away from the young ladies]; so Moshe arose ויושיען — and rescued them [ the daughters (feminine)]and [subsequently]watered צאנם — their flocks, [the sheep of the shepherds (masculine)]. (רחובות הנהר)
Moshe was no longer the vigilante who sought justice, but rather the quiet persona and embodiment of mussar / ethics, who solely, perforce his excellence of character, was able to influence others with his inherent goodness, illuminating and uplifting even the coarsest of characters.
The great 15th century scholar and kabbalist, Rav Avraham Saba, points out that in this last instance Moshe no longer acts out of zeal only on behalf of his brothers. He responded simply because, טבע האמת יחייבהו— the pure and natural truth obligated him. There is nothing more compelling than following ‘truth’.
The באר, a well, represents a natural source of life that must be discovered. One must dig until one hits a deep natural source of water, life itself. In mystical tradition the word for well, ב-א-ר, is an acronym for the sentiment expressed by the prophet Yeshaya, רוחי בקרבי — my spirit within me, אשחריך — beseeches you. (ישעיה כו ט)
The discovery of one’s soul mate is an expression of ‘completion’. Its proximity to a well, signifies the eternal pursuit for perfection. One who pines to find one’s true essence will be privileged to find the suitable partner to discover it together.
In the spirit of Rav Yisrael Salanter, in emulating our great teacher, Moshe, may we each find our true selves and warm the world with that discovery.
צבי יהודה טייכמאן