Moses lives his life in three palaces. He may have been born to enslaved Jews. And he may have spent some time as a baby in a leaky little basket in the Nile River. But then along came the Pharaoh's princess daughter and he began a career which would take him to three royal palaces. He was nurtured, raised, reared, and came of age in the royal court of the Pharaoh. He married into the priestly family of Midian and spent time living with his father-in-law, Jethro, in his palace. And then he came to spend the last forty years of his life in a rather unique palace. Moses was the first royal court Jew.
Now court Jews are well known to us. Their job is so very real and important that it determined their surnames. Just like Jews who were tailors gave us names like 'Schneider,' 'Portnoy,' or 'Kravitz,' and Jews who made shoes gave us the name 'Schuster,' court Jews gave us the name 'Stadlan,' from shtadlan lobbyist, 'Hoffman,' 'Hofmeister,' and others. Court Jews emerge for the first time at the end of the 16th century.
These are Jews who provide economic services to the royal court. Usually they are merchants and financiers. They move with ease in the space between an insular Jewish community and the seat of power. More often than not they dress like those at court. The court Jews are members of an elite profession that is at best tolerated, and in many instances despised. The court Jew works hard at preventing harsh actions by the government against the Jewish community. The court Jew is often not trusted by either party. The Jewish community sees him (there were no women court Jews) as someone Jewish who is too much at home in an alien culture. The royal court sees him as someone who should come to his senses and convert. The court Jew lives in the gray area between the two communities. What kind of court Jew was Moshe? When it came to defending Jews he had no ambivalences.
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out (from Pharaoh's palace) to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand…When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well. (Exodus 2:11, 12, 15)
Despite spending his formative years in Pharoah's palace at court, Moses clearly knew who he was and what he had to do. His loyalty to his people made him defend a fellow Jew by killing an Egyptian task master. He then had to flee for his life to Midian. And while he had a wonderful relationship with his father-in-law, a relationship that he did not enjoy with his own father, the fact is that Jethro (who supported his son-in-law as he applied for a position with the one God) nevertheless remained a pagan. While their parting was peaceful, Moses took world civilization along a very different path.
When God tells him it is time to take up a new job he leaves Midian. He returns to Egypt. The first thing he does when he returns to Egypt is to go to the royal court of the Pharaoh, to the palace. And he declares in the name of God, "Let my people go!" There is something about this man Moses that gains him entry to the royal court time after time, plague after plague, to warn Pharaoh that he must relent and that he must let Israel go. The rest of the story is well known.
However, what is not always appreciated is where does Moses take up residence? After the sea is split and after all Israel stands at Sinai Moses becomes a man of the Mishkan-the Tabernacle, the portable temple or synagogue in the desert. This is his third and last palace. He is a Jew at court in the most royal of courts. And to what use does he put his position? The Jewish people are at times, in the 40 years in the desert, threatened by God with serious punishment for their sins. Indeed, their sins are not minor. It's not nice to use a Golden Calf to mess with God, or to tell God you've decided the Land of Israel isn't for you and you want to go back to Egypt.
What is Moses' response to God's proposed and justifiable punishments? Moses makes it clear to God that he will ever and always choose the Jewish people over God. Moses makes it clear to God that he cannot punish the Jewish people that way. God must be faithful to the promise made to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to bring their children into the Land of Israel. For this reason God says of Moses, "In My entire home, My palace, at My court there is no one more trustworthy than Moses." Moshe indeed is the first court Jew. He has no ambivalences about who he is. He is there to take up with God the cause of all Israel.
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is the Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.