Thursday, December 23, 2010
The Prince of Egypt
Orthodox Jewish reactions to the Dreamworks movie "The Prince of Egypt" were generally negative. Moses was portrayed as being too young, and not holy enough; Aharon was portrayed in a poor light; Tzipporah was not particular tzanua; etc., etc. To be sure, there is what to criticize, including some inaccuracies that probably don't even occur to people; for example, the Torah does not describe Yocheved as dangerously floating Moshe down the river (although it makes for a terrific song in the movie), but rather as placing him in the reeds.
But there is one major theme in the movie which, while it probably grates on the sensitivities of some Orthodox Jews, is an important part of the story.
We're all brought up being taught that Moshe was the greatest tzaddik ever, and the Egyptians were the worst resha'im. And so when The Prince of Egypt depicts Moses as having a close relationship with Rameses, and being emotionally torn up when assisting in the plagues inflicted upon him, this makes some of us uncomfortable. But I think that this is an extremely valuable point in Moshe growing up in Pharaoh's palace to begin with.
Ibn Ezra says that the leader of the Jewish People could only be someone who grew up in such circumstances. Had Moshe grown up as a slave, with the lowly mentality of a slave, he wouldn’t have had the confidence and character traits to be a leader. Attacking the Egyptian who was hitting the Jew, and saving the Bnos Midyan – Moshe was only capable of these things because he had grown up as royalty. But perhaps growing up as the prince of Egypt was also important as it placed him in a test that was crucial for his future as leader of the Jewish people:
“And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; and he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand". (Exodus 2:11-12)
Many years ago, I heard a terrific drush on this from Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopez-Cardozo, quoting Rav Shlomo Kluger: that we are being told here about the identity crisis of the prince of Egypt. When Moshe saw the Egyptian beating the Jew, “He looked this way and that way” – he looked at his royal Egyptian upbringing, and at his Jewish ancestral roots. “And he saw that there was no man” – he saw that he lacked a true identity. “And he slew the Egyptian” – within himself. “And hid him in the sand” – he totally detached himself from the Egyptian mindset, and aligned himself fully with the fate of the Jews.
This was the trial of identity for Moshe. Would he give up all the luxuries and familiarity of Egyptian culture, as well as the relationships from his life so far, to go over to “the other side” and reunite with the slave nation? Moshe passed the test. But I don't think that this trial of identity was only about his slaughter of the Egyptian. I think that, even if Moshe aligned himself fully with the Jews, it could not have been easy for him to leave Pharaoh's house, and to be involved with inflicting the plagues that harmed Pharaoh's home.
Consider this: as Rav Chaim Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim notes, a major theme of the entire Exodus is hakaras hatov (gratitude) - with two notable examples being Moshe not being able to smite the river and the dust, both of which saved him. Even though this was not a conscious act on the part of the river and the dust, Moshe nevertheless felt hakaros hatov towards them. Now, hakaros hatov is not an intellectual position; it is an emotional sentiment. If Moshe had this emotional connection, this feeling of gratitude, to the river and the dust, imagine how much of an emotional connection and feelings of gratitude he would have had to the home that raised him!
If we perceive Moshe as being Moshe Rabbeinu from day one, like all Gedolim are portrayed as being malachim from birth, then it's hard for us to imagine that he could have had these feelings towards Pharaoh's home. But if we realize that Moshe grew up as the Prince of Egypt, then we can certainly understand that his gratitude towards Pharaoh's home must surely have exceeded his gratitude towards the Nile and the dust. This is something that the movie does a good job of illustrating, and especially the pain that Moshe would have felt in his role with inflicting the plagues upon Egypt.
Feeling this distress, yet not letting it stand in the way of his vital job on behalf of his fellow Jews, was Moshe's akeidah. To be a leader requires tremendous dedication to the people. Moshe had to bring that dedication to light - by painfully giving up on his upbringing as the Prince of Egypt.