Most people are surprised to learn that Moses was eighty years old when G-d first appeared to him at the Burning Bush and told him to stand in front of Pharaoh and declare “Let my people go!” (see Exodus 7:7). Talk about a late career start!!
Did you ever wonder what “the greatest Jew who ever lived” was doing for the first 80 years of his life? The Torah doesn’t tell us much, save that he noticed the suffering of his brethren, killed an Egyptian, and ran away to Midian where he met his wife.
Well, for one thing, Moses’ life had a difficult start. His mother Jochebed could no longer conceal him from the Egyptians who wanted to drown all Jewish boys, so she placed Moses in a reed basket in the Nile River, while his older sister Miriam watched nervously from a distance to see what would happen to him (see Exodus 2:1-4). I guess you could say that Miriam was a “basket case” while her mother was in “de-Nile”.
The next thing we are told is that the daughter of Pharaoh retrieved the basket from the river and brought Baby Moses to the royal palace where she raised him as her own son.
Lucky for us, the Oral Tradition that was handed over to Moses at Mount Sinai together with the Written Torah fills in the gaps, giving us a glimpse into the “early years” of the greatest Jew to ever walk the planet.
We know from the Torah that Moses had a speech impediment that greatly hindered his powers of oratory (see Exodus 4:10-11). And the Midrash tells us the fascinating story behind Moses' speech defect:
When he was but a small child, growing up in Pharaoh's palace, Moses once took the royal crown and put it on his head. Pharaoh grew angry with Moses and decided to kill him. One of his advisors (some say this was Moses’ future father-in-law Jethro!) suggested to Pharaoh that before killing the child, they should test his intellectual ability to see how smart and devious he really was. So they brought in front of Moses two bowls; one full of gold and diamonds and the other full of burning hot coals. The smart little boy was about to go for the jewels, but G-d performed a miracle and sent the angel Gabriel to push Moses' hand over to the hot coals instead. By instinct, he then touched his mouth, causing the speech defect, but at least his life was spared.
The great Bible commentator Nachmanides explains that G-d didn't want to heal Moses' speech problem, even though it greatly reduced his effectiveness in communicating with Pharaoh, because He wanted Moses to have a constant reminder of the great miracle that he experienced as a young child, and which literally saved his life. In a strange sort of way, this handicap of Moses was a “gift from G-d” ensuring that he would be eternally grateful, never for a moment taking his life for granted.
[The 14th-century sage Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben (known as the Ra”n) offers a different explanation as to why G-d didn’t heal Moses’ speech impediment before sending him to speak with Pharaoh. He writes that had Moses been an eloquent and gifted speaker, there would always be room for skeptics to claim that the Jewish people accepted the Torah, its truths and its mandates, only as a result of Moses’ charisma. After all, a glib, captivating speaker can convince people of just about anything. Now that it was actually a challenge to listen to Moses, it became eminently clear that we did not accept the Torah because we were wowed by Moses’ words; we accepted the Torah because we clearly heard G‑d’s words.]
The Midrash also tells us that during his time spent in the king's palace, Moses often went to his brethren, the slaves of Pharaoh, sharing their sad lot. He helped anyone who bore too heavy a burden or was too weak for his work. He reminded Pharaoh that a slave was entitled to some rest, and begged him to grant the Israelites one free day in the week. Pharaoh acceded to this request, and Moses accordingly instituted the seventh day, the Sabbath, as a day of rest for the Israelites.
According to Yalkut Shimoni in Shemos (#168), Moses was eighteen years old when he ran away from Pharaoh’s palace and ended up in the land of Cush (Ethiopia). After spending ten years there in the army and after successfully helping the Cushites conquer a very fortified city, they placed him on the throne and placed the royal crown on his head, and also the Cushite noble woman (the wife of the previous dead king) they gave to him for a wife. But Moses feared the G-d of his forefathers and did not sleep with her, because he remembered the oath which Abraham made his servant Eliezer swear, saying: ‘Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan’.
The Yalkut Shimoni continues that Moses ruled over Ethiopia for forty years, after which time his 'wife' complained to the ministers and the people: "Behold, for forty years this one has ruled over Cush, but he has never slept with me, and he has never worshiped our idols!" She advised them to instead make her son the king, and they agreed to this and sent Moses away with a lot of gifts and with great honor.
At this time Moses was 67 years old. He still could not return to Egypt out of fear of being killed by Pharaoh, so he traveled to Midian where he met up with Jethro (who would later become his father-in-law). After telling Jethro about his time spent in Pharaoh’s palace and how he ruled over Ethiopia, Jethro started to suspect that Moses might want to rule over Midian, so he threw Moses into prison for ten years. After being let of out of jail, Moses married Jethro’s daughter Tzipporah, and she bore him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, in three years.
Moses was now 80 years old and G-d appeared to him at the Burning Bush, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I would like to conclude with a fascinating Midrash quoted by the Tiferes Yisrael (in his commentary to Kiddushin 4:14, paragraph 77) which reveals to us the true greatness of Moses and gives us a sense of what he was busy with during the first eighty years of his life before becoming famous:
It was when Moses took the Jewish people out of Egypt that all the nations heard about his greatness and all the incredible miracles that he performed, that a certain Arab king was curious to know more about this great man. He therefore dispatched his artists to the Israelite encampment to draw a picture of Moses. Upon their return he gave the portrait to his physiognomists, who were able to determine a person's character by studying his facial features. The physiognomists submitted their analysis: This person was vain, arrogant, greedy, indolent, irascible, and lustful. The king reprimanded his artists for their incompetence in properly depicting Moses, since there could not be so great a discrepancy between the analysis of his wise men and the accounts he had received of Moses' stellar personality. When the artists swore that their drawing was accurate, the king decided to see for himself. Upon meeting Moses, the king saw that the artists had not omitted even a single hair. Knowing the reliability of his wise men, the king was perplexed, and confronted Moses with his problem. Moses explained, "Your physiognomists were not mistaken. You see, all that they can deduce from a person's facial features are his inborn traits, and indeed, I was born with all the contemptible character traits they described. However, I worked on myself to transform them and to become the person that I felt I should be."
From this Midrash about Moses and how he overcame all his negative character traits we learn a powerful lesson that we can apply in our own lives. It’s okay to have bad traits like anger, greed, arrogance, etc. Why even the greatest Jew who ever lived had them! But what makes a person truly great is if he can work on changing or channeling those traits into something positive and becoming a kind and sensitive person. Moses did it and so can we!