Screenwriters are drawn to an unusual aspect of Moshe’s story: that the future liberator of the Jews was raised in the house of Pharaoh. Movies like the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt invent backstories to describe Moshe’s childhood, and fill in the details that are missing in the text. Moshe is cast as the step-sibling of the Pharaoh he would later battle; and these movie scripts offer a vivid picture of childhood friendships and jealousies, romantic rivalries and bitter squabbles. American cinema has written an entire soap opera for Moshe’s life, which reaches its crescendo when Moshe returns home to the palace and demands from his estranged step-family -- let my people go.
The paradox of Moshe in Pharaoh’s house also caught the attention of traditional commentaries. But they are interested in why this absurd turn of events ever occurred, and why God chose to bring this about. For one accustomed to seeing the workings of providence within the text, Moshe being raised in Pharaoh's house is truly a riddle.
Several responses are offered. Rabbinic literature highlights the irony that the great Pharaoh will ultimately be taken down by the baby sitting on his lap. Various texts in the Talmud tell of a nervous Pharaoh, obsessed with destroying a future Jewish savior. Following his astrologers’ advice that this savior can be vanquished by water, he orders every Jewish boy to be thrown into the river. Yet this desperate decree actually brings Moshe to Pharaoh’s doorstep. Moshe’s very presence in the palace mocks Pharaoh's carefully maintained image of being an all-powerful human deity. Instead, Pharaoh comes off as a frightened, bumbling man who provides a luxurious upbringing for his future nemesis.
Avraham ibn Ezra offers two insights, both tied to the concept of leadership. He explains that had Moshe been raised among the Jews, they would not have feared him; he would have been too familiar and comfortable to exercise full authority over them. Ibn Ezra offers another idea, which focuses on what Moshe learned from Pharaoh’s example. Ibn Ezra asserts that the Jews in Egypt had a slave mentality, and anyone raised among them would be too cowardly to confront Pharaoh. Being raised in Pharaoh's house would train Moshe to have an “exalted soul”, to be strong and confident. Moshe is learning a leadership style from Pharaoh that he could not learn in his own community.
Ibn Ezra’s explanation is troubling, because according to his view, God brings Moshe to Pharaoh’s house to be more like Pharaoh. But who would want to emulate the leadership of Pharaoh? Pharaoh’s autocratic administration and slavery are clearly connected, because elevating one man into a demigod dehumanizes everyone else. If anything, it would seem to me that the Torah is offering the opposite message: Moshe’s leadership skills came not from imitating Pharaoh, but in defying him.
It is remarkable that Moshe became a spiritual giant; most others would have been seduced by the power and privilege of Pharaoh’s palace. It would have surprised no one if Moshe had stayed loyal to the royal family that cared for him, and turned his back on his Jewish brethren. Our social context has a profound influence on who we are; Maimonides says it is such a potent force, that if one is living among “evildoers and sinners”, they should uproot themselves and leave home to “dwell in caves, or cliffs, or deserts.” Yet Moshe manages to transcend his background, and even at a young age is a rival of Pharaoh’s despotic, depraved empire.
Moshe's choice to rebel against Pharaoh is truly the road less traveled; most people prefer to follow the crowd and listen to the leader. This is a sobering thought for anyone who strives to live an upright life; perhaps our moral achievements are simply the product of luck. We are who we are because of positive role models. Had our upbringing been different, we might be very different people. Thomas Nagel, in his essay Moral Luck, reminds us that “what we do is also limited by the opportunities and choices with which we are faced, and these are largely determined by factors beyond our control. Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.”
People generally live conventional lives. For the ordinary citizen of Nazi Germany, antisemitism was socially expected, and murder was accepted. And for those who followed Hitler uncritically, it was easy to follow orders. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, defended himself in the Nuremberg Trials by saying: “I was always loyal to Hitler, carried through his orders, differed frequently in opinion from him, had serious disputes with him, repeatedly tendered my resignation, but when Hitler gave an order, I always carried out his instructions in accordance with the principles of our authoritarian state.” Von Ribbentrop’s argument is an example of the “Nuremberg Defense,” the argument that the Nazi defendants should be excused for their crimes because they were following the law of the land. This defense is the legal equivalent of invoking moral luck, with the defendants in Nuremberg arguing that they should be exonerated because they were doing what was expected of them.
But not everyone followed the crowd. A remarkable few defied the Nazis, and refused to sell their souls. There were rescuers like Schindler, Wallenberg, and Sugihara, both famous and unknown, who defied the evil Pharaoh’s edict. They followed Moshe on the road less traveled, and were willing to pursue justice and integrity when everyone else had turned their backs.
Moshe begins his career with the ultimate act of independence, by listening to his conscience instead of his contemporaries. His ability to safeguard his soul while being raised in Pharaoh’s house is remarkable. But the Torah demands more of all humanity; and the point of the story is that all of us can be Moshe.