How did Moses become Moses?
Shemot (2:11) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And it happened at that time that Moses grew and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.
and looked at their burdens: He directed his eyes and heart to be distressed over them. [from Exod Rabbah 1:27]
Alter of Kelm (Simcha Zissel Ziv)
because Moses set his eyes to focus on and feel the pain of the Jewish people, God acted in kind and also saw their suffering and He ultimately redeemed them.
The very first story the Torah tells us about Moshe revolves around his nesiah b’ol chaveiro [bearing the burden of the other, empathy]. Moshe left Pharaoh’s palace to see how his enslaved brethren were faring. Rashi tells us that he “placed his eyes and heart [toward them] to feel their pain.” He saw what was happening to them and internalized it in his own heart. He did not merely say, “It must be so hard for you”; he felt his fellow Jews’ pain as if it were his own. Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential embodiment of Hashem’s attributes, personified this trait of nosei b’ol.
Parshat Shemot provides a short biographical sketch of Moshe Rabbeinu, before he was chosen to become the leader of Bnei Yisrael. Specifically, the Torah describes the following incidents: First, Moshe … smote the Egyptian second, Moshe observed one Jew poised to hit a fellow Jew third, [he] chanced upon a distressing scene taking place at the local well … Upon witnessing this injustice, Moshe was galvanized into action; he protected the girls and gave water to their sheep. …The common thread that runs through them is Moshe’s intolerance of injustice. … The closer a person is to holiness, the more sensitive he is to transgression and injustice.
And Moses was herding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he drove the flock into the wilderness [free pastureland in other translations] and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb.
after the free pastureland: to distance himself from [the possibility of] theft, so that they [the flocks] would not pasture in others’ fields.
Midrash Rabbah Shemot
God does not give greatness to a person before testing him with a small matter. Only after this, does He raise him to greatness. Two of the greatest men in the world were tested by God with a small matter. when they were found trustworthy in this, He raised them to greatness. He tested David with sheep and he led them into the desert in order to prevent them from trespassing on other people’s property … And so with Moshe: “He led the sheep into the desert” to avoid trespass. And God took him to shepherd His people Israel, as the verse says, “You led Your people like sheep by the hand of Moshe and Aharon.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
A person’s true character — his true madrega — is revealed, rather, in the little things to which he may attach no special importance at the time. … A person’s true character is revealed by his attitude to the smallest things. … The little act, which no one knows about and which flowed imperceptibly from his inmost heart, show[s] his true madrega.
And it happened when a long time had passed that the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their pleas from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning …”
Ramban-Nachmanides (Miqra’ot Gedolot, Michael Carasik)
A long time after that. Literally, “during those many days.” … Our Sages explain that the text calls them “many,” because it was a painful time that seemed interminable. … But in my opinion, the “many days” are the period in which Moses was on the run from the Pharaoh.
…Moshe didn’t become Moshe Rabbeinu overnight. It took eighty years of work to perfect himself and achieve the greatness that he attained. This is an idea which holds true regarding all spiritual acquisitions. There are no crash courses and no Cliff notes that can catapult you to perfection. Thus, no real character improvement happens in the blink of an eye. Rather, it takes months and years of slow and deliberate work to improve and polish our middos until they glisten like diamonds.
At first glance, this reality appears to be quite depressing. Who likes beginning projects that are expected to take years of continual effort before achieving the desired results? However, in reality, this piece of information should be very energizing. How many times have people tried rectifying their middos or radically changing the way they do things – without success? They failed because they were looking for the shortcut toward perfection. Awareness that one didn’t find the shortcut because there is no shortcut is in truth a breath of fresh air. This knowledge allows one to work on his middos at a slow pace, which not only doesn’t weigh down on a person, but also ultimately leads to true change. As we all know from the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady is the way to the finish line.