Jonathan Sacks on Moses' Identity

Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, writes of Moses’ first encounter with God:

The first question Moses asked of God was mi anokhi, “Who am I?” On the surface, this was an expression of doubt as to his personal worthiness to lead the Israelites to freedom. But there is also an echo of an identity crisis, rare in those days though all too familiar now. Who, after all, was Moses? A child hidden in a basket of reeds, found and adopted by an Egyptian princess, given an Egyptian name and brought up in Pharaoh’s palace. Many years later, when circumstances force him to leave Egypt and take flight to Midian, he comes to the rescue of Jethro’s daughters, who tell their father, “An Egyptian man delivered us.” Moses looked, spoke, and dressed like an Egyptian. Yet the text tells us that when he grew up he “went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.” Somehow he knew that the enslaved Israelites were “his brothers.” By upbringing he was an Egyptian; by birth he was a Jew.

The mind reels at such a choice. On the one hand lay a life of ease, position, and power as a prince in Pharaoh’s court; on the other, the prospect of years of struggle and privation as a member of a nation of slaves. Yet when God tells him, “I am the Lord, the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” Moses’ crisis is resolved and never reappears in that form. He now knows that he is part of an unfinished story that began with the patriarchs and continues through him. He may wear the clothes and speak the language of an Egyptian, but he is a Jew because that is who his ancestors were, and their hopes now rest on him. The modern Jewish question is unusual but not unprecedented: we are each faced with Moses’ choice. By culture and upbringing we are part of the liberal democracies of the West, but by birth each of us is heir to the history of our ancestors and a destiny that joins our fate to theirs…

To be a Jew, now as in the days of Moses, is to hear the call of those who came before us and know that we are guardians of their story.1


  • 1 : Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 46–47.

Connection Questions

  1. What identity crisis does Moses face? How does he deal with that crisis?
  2. How does that answer change Moses’s life?
  3. What lesson does Sacks seem to draw from this story? Do you agree? Why or why not?

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