While the whole world is dealing with atrocities, ever increasing moral and physical decadence, Orthodox Jews gather every week at their synagogues throughout the world to read what could be considered Universal History.
Indeed, the book we read is our Holy Torah, which begins, as it is appropriate, with the Creation of the World by G d Himself, the One G d who is so jealous that one of His Commandments is “NO idolatry.”
And, so, as we begin the second book of the Torah, this week Moses enters our lives once again.
We read last week how the good times end as the Jewish leader Joseph, son of our Patriarch Yaacov, dies as ruler of Egypt, thus closing the Jews chapter of bonanza there.
In the aftermath of Joseph’s death, Egyptians realise how prosperous the Jewish people had become and, of course, they turned on them, and enslaved them.
It is then that Moses appears, bringing along his own string of Divine Miracles for him and therefore also for the Jewish people.
Moses lived between ca. 1391 to ca. 1271 before the common era*.
Along with God, it is the figure of Moses (Moshe) who dominates the Torah.
Acting at G d’s behest, it is he who leads the Jews out of slavery, unleashes the Ten Plagues against Egypt, guides the freed slaves for forty years in the wilderness, carries down the law from Mount Sinai, and prepares the Jews to enter the land of Canaan.
Without Moses, there would be little apart from laws to write about in the last four books of the Torah that follow the first one, Bereshit or Genesis.
Moses is born during the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, during a terrible period when Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew infants are to be drowned at birth.
His mother, Yocheved, desperate to prolong his life, floats him in a basket in the Nile.
Hearing the crying child as she walks by, Pharaoh’s daughter pities the crying infant and adopts him (Exodus 2:1-10).
It surely is no coincidence that the Jews’ future liberator is raised as an Egyptian prince. Had Moses grown up in slavery with his fellow Hebrews, he probably would not have developed the pride, vision, and courage to lead a revolt.
The Torah records only three incidents in Moses’ life before G-d appoints him a prophet.
As a young man, outraged at seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Jewish slave, he kills the overseer.
The next day, he tries to make peace between two Hebrews who are fighting, but the aggressor takes umbrage and says: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses immediately understands that he is in danger, for though his high status undoubtedly would protect him from punishment for the murder of a mere overseer, the fact that he killed the man for carrying out his duties to Pharaoh would brand him a rebel against the king.
Sure enough, Pharaoh orders Moses killed, and he flees to Midian.
At this point, Moses probably wants nothing more than a peaceful interlude, but immediately he finds himself in another fight. The seven daughters of the Midianite priest Reuel (also called Jethro) are being abused by the Midianite male shepherds, and Moses rises to their defense (Exodus 2:11-22).
The incidents are of course related. In all three, Moses shows a deep, almost obsessive commitment to fighting injustice. Furthermore, his concerns are not parochial. He intervenes when a non-Jew oppresses a Jew, when two Jews fight, and when non-Jews oppress other non-Jews.
Moses marries Tzipporah, one of the Midianite priest’s daughters, and becomes the shepherd for his father-in-law’s flock. On one occasion, when he has gone with his flock into the wilderness, an angel of the L rd appears to him in the guise of a bush that is burning but is not consumed (see next entry). The symbolism of the miracle is powerful. In a world in which nature itself is worshiped, G d shows that He rules over it.
Once He has so effectively elicited Moses’ attention, G d commands-over Moses’ strenuous objections-that he go to Egypt and along with his brother, Aaron, make one simple if revolutionary demand of Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh resists Moses’ petition, until G d wreaks the Ten Plagues on Egypt, after which the children of Israel escape.
Months later, in the Sinai Desert, Moses climbs Mount Sinai and comes down with the Ten Commandments, only to discover the Israelites engaged in an orgy and were worshiping a Golden Calf.
The episode is paradigmatic: Only at the very moment G d or Moses is doing something for them are they loyal believers. The instant G d’s or Moses’ presence is not manifest, the children of Israel revert to amoral, immoral, and sometimes idolatrous behaviour.
Like a true parent, Moses rages at the Jews when they sin, but he never turns against them-even when G d does.
To G d’s wrathful declaration on one occasion that He will blot out the Jews and make of Moses a new nation, he answers, “Then blot me out too” (Exodus 32:32).
The law that Moses transmits to the Jews in the Torah embraces far more than the Ten Commandments.
In addition to many ritual regulations. the Jews are instructed to love G d as well as be in awe of Him, to love their neighbours as themselves, and to love the stranger-that is, the non-Jew living among them-as themselves as well.
The saddest event in Moses’ life might well be G d’s prohibiting him from entering the land of Israel.
The reason for this ban is explicitly connected to an episode in Numbers in which the Hebrews angrily demand that Moses supply them with water. G d commands Moses to assemble the community, “and before their very eyes order the [nearby] rock to yield its water.”
Fed up with the Hebrews’ constant whining and complaining, he says to them instead: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then strikes the rock twice with his rod, and water gushes out (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:2-13).
It is this episode of disobedience, striking the rock instead of speaking to it, that is generally offered as the explanation for why G d punishes Moses and forbids him to enter Israel.
The punishment, however, seems so disproportionate to the offense, that the real reason for G d’s prohibition must go deeper.
According to Joseph Telushkin who mentions that Dr. Jacob Milgrom, professor of Bible at the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested (elaborating on earlier comments of Rabbi Hananael, Nachmanides, and the Bekhor Shor) that Moses’ sin was declaring, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” implying that it was he and his brother, Aaron, and not G d, who were the authors of the miracle. Rabbi Irwin Kula has suggested that Moses’ sin was something else altogether. Numbers 14:5 records that when ten of the twelve spies returned from Canaan and gloomily predicted that the Hebrews would never be able to conquer the land, the Israelites railed against Moses. In response, he seems to have had a mini-breakdown: “Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites.”
The two independent spies, Joshua and Caleb, both of whom rejected the majority report, took over “and exhorted the whole Israelite community” (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:7).
Later, in Devarim/Deuteronomy, when Moses delivers his final summing-up to the Israelites, he refers back to this episode: “When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: “Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, none except Caleb…. Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua … who attends you, he shall enter it” (1:34-38).
Despite these two sad episodes, Moses impressed his monotheistic vision upon the Jews with such force that in the succeeding three millennia, Jews have never confused the messenger with the Author of the message.
As Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann has written: “in Greece, the heroes of the past were held to have been sired by a god or to have been born of a goddess … [and] in Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered divine.” But despite the extraordinary veneration accorded Moses — “there has not arisen a prophet since like Moses” is the Bible’s verdict (Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:10) — no Jewish thinker ever thought he was anything other than a man.
It is said that it was G d Himself who buried Moses in an unknown place.
* – Lifespan of Moses as calculated by the Seder Olam Rabbah.