Moses has three fathers in his life. By contrast, Moses has a direct connection with his mother. After she sends him away, she is later hired to be his nursemaid. Yet Amram, Moses’ father, never interacts with Moses directly. Even the Midrash never imagines a direct encounter between Moses and Amram.
Pharaoh becomes Moses’ second father figure. We see little of the relationship in the Torah; we know only that Moses is forced to flee from him after rescuing an Israelite from the hands of an Egyptian taskmaster. Pharaoh is the figure of justice without mercy. Moses has broken the law by killing the taskmaster. But Pharaoh refuses to allow the context of the act, or their relationship, to change his judgment. So Moses learns justice from Pharaoh, but not mercy or love.
Moses’ third father figure is Jethro, the Priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law. I’ve often been intrigued by the relationship between in-laws and their children by marriage. It is as close as one gets to choosing a parent. It is also a parental relationship entered as an adult. There can be love and mentoring freed from the baggage of childhood and adolescence. At their best, such relationships enable a loving growth that enormously complements the role of birth parents.
In this regard, Moses wins the father-in-law lottery. Jethro is a spiritual and caring presence, deeply committed to his children but with room in his heart for this new dynamic presence in his daughter’s life. Midrashim and modern movies alike imagine Jethro teaching Moses a new appreciation of God, of holiness, of being aware of the spiritual. I would go further and say he adds the element of love into Moses’ life.
Jethro journeys out to see Moses immediately before the moment of revelation and the ten commandments. He brings Moses’ wife and children to him. Unlike Pharoah, Jethro is moved by Moses’ successes and the role of God in the world. He compliments and blesses even as he offers critical advice. His is a loving, thoughtful, mentoring presence.
Moses learns justice and judgment from Pharaoh. But it is Jethro who enables the revelation by enriching that awareness of law with love. Our tradition believes in law and practice but always through the lens of love. Unfiltered law is evil; law filtered by love is life sustaining.
Amram plays a third hidden role. His absence leaves Moses yearning. The Mishnah teaches that the wise person learns from everyone; Amram’s absence makes Moses more receptive to the father figures he will need in his life. Further, as Moses sees that each father figure offers him something but not everything, it further creates a yearning for God.
I believe Moses became Moses in part because of all three father figures in his life. From Pharaoh, he learned of justice and law. From Jethro, love and compassion. And absent Amram? A yearning that finally led him to God.
Rabbi David Booth