We are going to focus at this Seder on the person, the character, the leader, Moses. Rather than simply recite the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are going to review how Moses is portrayed in the Bible (Torah) and let everyone provide their own comments and feedback. This is our favorite part of participating in Torah Discussions on a Saturday morning, and I thought it would be more fun to do that as part of our Seder.
The Moses who we are going to talk about tonight dominates the biblical narrative through the remainder of the Book of Exodus, indeed through the rest of the Pentateuch; his only rival, and ultimate superior, in narrative attention, as, of course, in other spheres, is God Himself. But this Moses comes to us as a strange and difficult person. Running throughout the narrative of Exodus, and of the Pentateuch as a whole, is the depiction of a unique individual: one with little or no precedent, solitary, not easily approachable, set apart from the very community he is born to lead.
This quality apart emerges in a variety of ways. For one thing, Moses’ origins may be in the community of Israel, yet they are not of it. The text is at pains to assign him a genealogy within the family of Israel—at pains, perhaps, because it then has to recognize that he was adopted into the court of the Pharaoh, given his name by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and raised as Egyptian royalty. This creates classic ambiguity that scholars have debated for centuries.
That ambiguity is fortified by other features of Moses’ family life. His wife, Zipporah, is not from Israel, but from the Midianites of the region of Sinai, and her foreignness is later criticized by none other than Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, in the context of a challenge to Moses’ own legitimacy and leadership. There is also the son Moses has with Zipporah: he is named Gershom, according to the biblical text, precisely because this is to memorialize Moses as outsider, a Gershom has as well a curious genealogical niche. For while he has descendants, they are not arranged in a line of divine promise and authority such as is found with Abraham and his family.
As for the character of Moses’ leadership, here too there is difference. He is assigned, for example, a traditional title in Israel, that of prophet—a title first given to Abraham—but he is unlike Abraham and the others, for as Deuteronomy comments: “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face”. To be sure, in another biblical encounter, Moses is not allowed to see God’s face, but only His back; still that encounter leaves Moses a preternatural, even divine sheen, which once more sets him apart: “When Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, his face was all aglow with radiance, and they were afraid to come near to him”—just as, one may add, they had been afraid to go near to God and His quaking mountain of Sinai.
Even apparent defects or negatives in the character of Moses become occasions on the part of the biblical authors to find superlatives of uniqueness. Thus, in the confrontation with Aaron and Miriam, the sinful effrontery of their challenge to Moses emerges all the more clearly in the description of Moses at the opposite extreme: “The man Moses was very meek, more than all humanity that was on the face of the earth”. And when God commands Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt, and Moses protests his competence to challenge the Pharaoh because of a speech defect—a “heaviness of mouth and heaviness of tongue” as the text says —this defect is turned, by God, into the basis of a new arrangement, wherein Aaron shall do the speaking, and Moses will direct him as though he were God Himself.
Finally, there is the matter of Moses’ death, at the end of the Pentateuch in Deuteronomy 34. It flatly contradicts the pattern of expectation that the biblical narrative had accustomed us to, namely, that promises would be fulfilled and lives would reach closure. For Moses is not allowed to die in, let alone enter, the land promised to Israel already in patriarchal days—the land that he had been divinely commanded to return Israel to, without any indication, initially, that he would be barred from. Indeed, at the end Moses cannot even be buried in the promised land, as key patriarchal figures had been, including Jacob and Joseph, who had died outside of Israel. Rather, Moses dies and is buried outside of the land, across the Jordan River in Moab, a region otherwise often at odds with Israel; and he is buried in a spot unknown, placed there not even by human hands, but by God alone. Now the Bible, it has to be noted, tries to explain this end; yet it succeeds in doing so only by a series of incomplete and obscure reasons—a situation that later Jewish commentaries, in turn, made desperate efforts to fill out and discuss, if not to clarify.2All of this, thus, only serves to underscore what an extraordinary fate Moses is given in the biblical text, and how well it echoes and rounds out the equally strange picture of his origins in, but not of, Israel.
Before we continue to read about some analysis of how Moses is portrayed, we want to open the discussion up at this point…
For the Bible, in sum, Moses is indeed a man apart—apart not only from the people he guides and the land to which he directs them, but apart also, in many fundamental ways, from the kinds of leaders the previous generations of patriarchal figures had been. He remains the permanent outsider, a unique and towering figure.
The question that remains is why should this be so, and what does it mean. Three possibilities, at least, come to mind. First, one might say that, considered from a broader historical perspective, Moses’ characterization is not completely surprising. The stories circulating in many societies often picture their founders as different from the rest, even as distant—in short, as heroes. Yet if Moses in some sense belongs to this common type, in other ways he is an unusual, perhaps rare mutation of it, since, in his excessive modesty, distance, inexplicable fate, and strangeness, he is a kind of anti-hero: someone who does not easily serve in the native tradition as a role model, someone who cannot really be emulated.
Moses’ strangeness in the Bible may also be understood as a mirror of Israel as a whole, for Israel, too, is portrayed as the quintessential outsider, without easy parallel or precedent, to the other nations around it and to the religions and cultures they represent. Indeed, Israel is an outsider to the very land which its God promises it and which it then has to make its own in a continual struggle. Or, as the prophet Balaam exclaims, “Behold a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations”.
Thirdly, and lastly, by focusing on Moses as outsider, and especially as remote, inimitable outsider, the Bible ends up by shifting the emphasis away from who Moses is to what he communicates, namely, to the Law and to God as its source. We face, then, the paradox that the towering character of Moses may be stressed in the Bible, at least in part, precisely to efface him, so that his message may emerge more clearly and sharply. In other words, there is no cult of human personality—and this goes along with a more general strain of ambivalence in the bible toward human leaders and the limits of human authority. If the ultimate emphasis, therefore, is on Moses’ message, on the laws he mediates from a totally nonhuman source, we must observe, as a final point, that this is a message which, against the person Moses, is not remote or inimitable. For the laws it offers are laws designed for the human community: laws that, however difficult, all can follow, and must follow if they are to complete the process by which “God created humanity in His image”.
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