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, many of whom thought he had died, 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). Moses told the Israelites that they were not worthy to inherit the land, and would wander the wilderness for forty years until the generation who had refused to enter Canaan had died, so that it would be their children who would possess the land.
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).
On the banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land, Moses assembled the tribes. After recalling their wanderings he delivered God’s laws by which they must live in the land, sang a song of praise and pronounced a blessing on the people, and passed his authority to Joshua, under whom they would possess the land. Moses then went up Mount Nebo, looked over the Promised Land spread out before him, and died, at the age of one hundred and twenty.
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.
* - Lifespan of Moses as calculated by the Seder Olam Rabbah.
Photo: Guido Reni, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.