In Praise of Late Bloomers
Barat Ellman is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class XII). A rabbi, she received her Ph.D. in Bible from JTS this past spring. She is teaching as an adjunct professor at JTS and Fordham, and is actively looking for a full-time position. Barat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we begin the book of Shemot this week, my thoughts have turned to Moses. Not the Moses of the exodus from Egypt, or Moses the law-giver, or Moses the prophet who speaks panim-el-panim with God, but the Moses of Egypt and Midian; the early Moses before he becomes Moshe rabbeinu.
Exodus 2 is our primary biblical source for Moses’ personal biography. In its typically terse fashion, the Torah tells of the dangers that precede Moses’ conception and attend his birth, as well as his rescue at the unlikely hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. Then the text quickly jumps years ahead – in verse 11 – to announce that, “It came about in those days that Moses had grown up; he went out to his kinsmen and he saw their suffering.”
Reading this I wonder: why had Moses not recognized or empathized with the suffering of the Hebrew slaves until this point? According to most commentators, by verse 11 he was 20 . Surely he had had ample opportunity to observe their servitude during his childhood and adolescence. So what prompted the sudden burst of insight on Moses’ part? If the 15th century Spanish commentator Abravanel is correct, it derived from a place of self-interest: According to Abravanel, the first part of Exod 2:11 ( ???? ??–???? [“he went out to his kinsman”]) suggests that Moses had just learned of his true heritage. “He went out to his kinsmen” means, “He went to his Hebrew kinsmen or to his Levite kinsmen or even his actual brother from the family of Amram [his father according to ancient tradition].” At that point he learned who his parents were and with that information was able to recognize the suffering of the slaves; to identify with them, and perhaps even to fear for his own safety. Perhaps – against tradition – this episode reveals an unpleasant character trait of the young Moses: an inability to comprehend that which is outside the scope of his own identity.
Such myopia might also explain Moses’ delayed recognition of God’s presence in the burning bush. Although we don’t know how long God was waiting to be recognized, we do know that when Moses encounters God in Exod 3:2, he has been tending his father-in-law’s sheep for some years. How many times had he ignored God hovering above the ??? or bush on the side of the path? What made Moses notice this marvel now?
Moses may be the original late bloomer. It is only at the advanced age of 80 that Moses’ ability to recognize what is around him, his sense of purpose, and his spiritual passion awaken to spur him on to his extraordinary career as Israel’s leader and law-giver. Moreover, it is at this great age that he is able to harness his new-found spiritual intelligence and commitment to the service of a mission he could never have envisioned in his youth.
I find Moses’ example both inspiring and reassuring. Now 52, I am starting a new career as a Ph.D. in Bible. I am entering a tough job market whose rules and customs are new to me and whose assumptions about age I must try to overcome. I am in a field that is both hierarchical and guild-like. My biological and professional ages are at odds. A neophyte in the academic world, I’m too old to get away with being a tightly-coiled spring of surging potential, as I could in my 20’s and 30’s. The challenge of becoming established in this field is both uncomfortable and daunting.
But Moses’ biography gives me hope that at any age one really can discover new capabilities and chart new paths. Moses may have been lacking in perception for decades but ultimately, he became a vital, creative, forward-looking leader. It took 20 years for Moses to transform from a myopic prince into an empathetic social critic. When I see that it took him 60 years to translate his recognition of human suffering into a program of action and a total of 80 years to reach his potential and lead the Israelites out of Mitzrayim, I am encouraged to imagine what even we, the late bloomers, can do with the years ahead.
We may not free slaves or create nations, but we can make important contributions and, on the way, experience monumental personal growth.