(c.1391 - c.1271 BCE)*
Along with God, it is the figure of Moses (Moshe) who dominates the Torah.
Acting at God'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.
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 God 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.
Indeed, 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 Lord 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, God shows that He rules over it.
Once He has so effectively elicited Moses'
attention, God 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 God 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 worshiping a Golden Calf. The episode is paradigmatic: Only at
the very moment God or Moses is doing something for them are they
loyal believers. The instant God's or Moses' presence is not
manifest, the children of Israel revert to amoral, immoral, and
sometimes idolatrous behavior. Like a true parent, Moses rages at the
Jews when they sin, but he never turns against them-even when God
does. To God'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 God as well as be in awe of Him, to love their
neighbors 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
God'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.
God 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 (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 God punishes Moses and forbids him to enter
Israel. The punishment, however, seems so disproportionate to the
offense, that the real reason for God's prohibition must go deeper.
Most probably, as 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 God, 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" (Numbers
14:7). Later, in 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 (Deuteronomy 34:10)
no Jewish thinker ever thought he was anything other than a man. See And
No One Knows His Burial Place to This Day.
* - Lifespan of Moses as calculated by the Seder Olam Rabbah.
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish
Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by
permission of the author.