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A midrash that myself and I'm sure many others have heard in grade school is that when Moshe was a baby, still crawling, his "grandfather" Pharaoh, incited by an incident in which Moshe took off Pharaoh's crown to put it on his own head, decided to test his intelligence by setting up three piles equidistant from his starting point an see to which one he would crawl. One pile was of treasures like gold, silver, jewels, etc.; another was of red-hot coals; and the third I cannot remember. I also cannot remember which one Moshe intended on reaching, but the story goes that an angel (invisible, of course) forcefully changed his course to the red-hot coals. Apparently, Pharaoh was satisfied that Moshe was not overly precocious, and there the story ends (as far as I remember).

First of all, where is this midrash to be found? What is its source? (Also, please correct my rendition of it above.)

Additionally, if I may take it as axiomatic that the events described did not actually occur, what is the lesson of this midrash? What is its interpretation? Personal speculation is welcome as well as sources.

(Note: This question is inspired by this week's Weekly Topic Challenge as well as te fact that this midrash came up both this week and last week during the Parshat Hashavua' Chat.)

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I learned that there were two piles, not three. –  Menachem Jan 20 '12 at 2:08
    
@Menachem, Yes, as I noted below under DoubleAA's answer. –  jake Jan 20 '12 at 2:17
    
I noticed that after I posted my comment –  Menachem Jan 20 '12 at 2:30
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3 Answers 3

I got this from askmoses.com, since I am not a Jew and don't know Hebrew and am not familiar with all the sources noted there, please tell me if I have made a mistake and if my answer here is not appropriate.

The Midrash relates an interesting tradition: Moses was an exceedingly handsome baby; whoever saw him could not take their eyes off him. Pharaoh would kiss and hug Moses, and Moses would remove the crown from Pharaoh’s head and place it on his own—much as he was destined to do in the future…

The Egyptian sorcerers were present [when Moses donned Pharaoh’s crown and they said, “We are concerned that this child who is removing your crown and placing it on his head shouldn’t be the one whom we have foretold will seize the reins of monarchy from you.”

The source they mention is Midrash Rabba Exodus 1:26.

The following link might help you with regards to the explanation and interpretation of it. I don't know if it will work though, because I am using Google Argentina. The search might be different depending on where you are. Let me know if it doesn't work and I will remove it from the answer. Start reading at page 184 (that's where it should load) where it says Stands For Moses.

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Arg, you beat me by a minute :) –  Double AA Jan 19 '12 at 19:19
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Your answer is precise and very appropriate. –  jutky Jan 19 '12 at 19:20
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Thanks for the source; very appropriate. I just want to make it clear that I'm still looking for an interpretation of the midrash. –  jake Jan 19 '12 at 19:26
    
The link works. (I actually own that book.) However, as far as I can tell (and I will have to look at the R' Bachya that it is citing), it is merely citing the midrash as is without giving it any non-literal interpretation. (Although it does have the midrash slightly different that I see it on Hebrewbooks.) –  jake Jan 19 '12 at 20:10
    
@jake Oh, sorry. That's as much as I could dig up with my extremely limited knowledge on the topic. –  Nicolás Carlo Jan 19 '12 at 20:14
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The earliest source I can find is Shemot Rabba (Vilna) 1:26

היתה בת פרעה מנשקת ומחבקת ומחבבת אותו כאלו הוא בנה ולא היתה מוציאתו מפלטרין של מלך, ולפי שהיה יפה הכל מתאוים לראותו מי שהיה רואהו לא היה מעביר עצמו מעליו, והיה פרעה מנשקו ומחבקו והוא נוטל כתרו של פרעה ומשימו על ראשו כמו שעתיד לעשות לו כשהיה גדול ... והיו שם יושבין חרטומי מצרים ואמרו מתייראין אנו מזה שנוטל כתרך ונותנו על ראשו, שלא יהיה זה אותו שאנו אומרים שעתיד ליטול מלכות ממך, מהם אומרים להורגו מהם אומרים לשורפו, והיה יתרו יושב ביניהן ואומר להם הנער הזה אין בו דעת אלא בחנו אותו והביאו לפניו בקערה זהב וגחלת, אם יושיט ידו לזהב יש בו דעת והרגו אותו, ואם יושיט ידו לגחלת אין בו דעת ואין עליו משפט מות, מיד הביאו לפניו ושלח ידו ליקח הזהב ובא גבריאל ודחה את ידו ותפש את הגחלת והכניס ידו עם הגחלת לתוך פיו ונכוה לשונו, וממנו נעשה כבד פה וכבד לשון,

My translation:

And the daughter of Pharoh would hug and kiss Moses as if he were her son and she would not take him out from the kings palace. And since Moses was so beautiful everyone wanted to see him and anyone who saw him would not leave. And Pharoh himself would hug and kiss Moses and Moses would take the crown off Pharoh's head and place it on his own, just as he would do in the future when he grew up.... And sitting [before Pharoh and Moses] were the magicians of Egypt, and they said [to Pharoh], "We fear this [child] who takes your crown and puts it on his head, lest he be the one that we have said is going to take the kingship from you." Some suggested to kill him [by sword] while some suggested to burn him. And Jethro was sitting among them and said, "This child has no intellect!" So they tested him and brought before him a bowl of gold and a bowl of coals. If he would grab the gold then he had intellect and they would kill him. If he grabbed the coals, then not and he would be free. Moses reached for the gold, but the angel Gabriel came and pushed his hand, and he** grabbed the coal and he** inserted it with Moses's hand into Moses's mouth and it burned Moses's tongue. And this is how Moses developed his speech impediment.

** unclear if 'he' references Moses or Gabriel.

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Oh, I guess I couldn't remember what the third option was because there was no third option. (Found it here as Shemos Rabbah 1:31.) –  jake Jan 19 '12 at 19:24
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As stated by other the midrash comes from Shemot Rabbah 1:31.

As to the lesson of the Midrash... there are many. It's a long midrash. Using, DoubleAA's translation I'll go through it line by line.

And the daughter of Pharoh would hug and kiss Moses as if he were her son and she would not take him out from the kings palace.

This sets us up for when Moshe finally does leave the palace, and sees the Egyptian beating the Jewish Slave. It tells us of Moshe being a sheltered and charismatic person from his birth. This sheltering, is one of the reason he was able to become such a holy man.

And since Moses was so beautiful everyone wanted to see him and anyone who saw him would not leave. And Pharoh himself would hug and kiss Moses and Moses would take the crown off Pharoh's head and place it on his own, just as he would do in the future when he grew up....

While adding to his Charisma, this section also explains to us the test, since the Torah itself never tells us that Moshe took over Pharoah's malchut. In the Torah, that theme doesn't seem to be apparent, while it is a large theme in the midrashim. It highlights the importance of charisma to be a leader, and it show Moshe as the Kingship, while Aaron has the Kahuna. It hints to the transfer of leadership from the Firstborns of Israel to the Levites after another incident with gold.. the golden calf.

And sitting [before Pharoh and Moses] were the magicians of Egypt, and they said [to Pharoh], "We fear this [child] who takes your crown and puts it on his head, lest he be the one that we have said is going to take the kingship from you." Some suggested to kill him [by sword] while some suggested to burn him.

This is the way of wicked people. Kill the baby now out of fear that they will grow up to be an enemy in the future. It was this logic which caused Pharoah to oppress and enslave the Jews in the first place. Moshe here becomes a symbol of the Jewish people, who over the years get persecuted either by the sword or by burnings (of the beit hamikdash)

And Jethro (Yitro) was sitting among them and said, "This child has no intellect!" So they tested him and brought before him a bowl of gold and a bowl of coals. If he would grab the gold then he had intellect and they would kill him. If he grabbed the coals, then not and he would be free.

Here, Yitro is the middle voice, and Yitro as a member of Pharoah's court comes up often. He is the archetype of the "righteous gentile" who helps the Jewish people out of wisdom and middle temperance even though he does not join them officially. There is also the running theme of midah kneged midah here, where the suggestion of burning or killing, is associated with metal and coals.

Moses reached for the gold, but the angel Gabriel came and pushed his hand, and he** grabbed the coal and he** inserted it with Moses's hand into Moses's mouth and it burned Moses's tongue.

Even though at this point in time, Moshe could have taken the crown, for he was born into greatness, and according to this midrash even born with great intelect, that rightful declaration of Moshe as king, was not to be done at this time. So Gabriel, who strengthens people by withholding what they deserve at this time, saves moshe and the Jewish people by forcing him to towards the coals and humility.

And this is how Moses developed his speech impediment.

This is why Moshe could not speak well. He was too humble and could not assert his rights towards the kingship. His poor ability to speak to the king of Egypt would later blossom into his great ability to speak to, and lead, the Jewish people.

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