Judaism and the Jewish people owe their existence above all to two great founders, Abraham and Moses. Tradition has rightly given each a title: Abraham our father and Moses our teacher. These titles reflect the basic nature of their contribution to our existence. Abraham created the people; Moses created the religion. Obviously Abraham also originated certain concepts concerning God that influenced Moses, but there seems little doubt but that the main features of Judaism, the religion of Israel, came into being under the influence of Moses. Of course we also owe our very existence to him, since had we not been liberated from Egyptian bondage, we would not be here at all.
The contribution of each of these figures can best be seen by comparing the two covenants that they made. Abraham's covenant with God was what has been called a covenant of grant. God granted certain things to Abraham and his descendants as a reward for Abraham's loyalty to Him, much as a king would knight a loyal servant and grant him titles and lands that would pass on to his descendants as well. Thus God promises Abraham that he will become the father of a great nation, that his children will inherit the land of Canaan and that others will bless themselves by them (Genesis 17:1-8). However no demands were made upon him other than circumcision, the sign of the covenant.
With Moses a new covenant is made at Sinai that is quite different: "Now then if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples... you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). This new covenant is mutual, requiring the Israelites to observe the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments and all of God's commands - mitzvot.
Moses was indeed an extraordinary leader. He was a combination of politician, general, lawgiver, judge and teacher. As a politician, he led him people to freedom. As a general, he was a "supreme commander" - under God of course - rather than a field commander who oversaw the defeat of the Egyptian army and of other enemies Israel encountered along the way to Canaan. As a lawgiver, he formulated the statutes, civil and ritual, that determined the Israelite way of life and served as the foundation for all of the development of Jewish law throughout the centuries. As a judge, he ruled the people throughout his lifetime.
As a teacher, he instructed the people in a new and revolutionary set of beliefs concerning the nature of God, forever divorcing Judaism from paganism and changing the entire system of belief and worship. He formulated the concept of one God, without beginning and without end, not dependent on other forces or on fate, in need of nothing physical, not dependent on nature or human beings, not subject to magic formulas and spells, not subject to birth or death - a concept of God totally different from anything that had ever been conceived before. He taught a universal God of justice and mercy, to whom morality was a supreme value.
In a sense Ahad Ha'am was correct when he said that in essence Moses was really much more than all these roles put together. He was the "master of the prophets" who had a vision of a perfect society and devoted himself to realizing that idea.
It is not accidental that we always speak of Torat Moshe rather than Torat Avraham, for it was "the teaching - Torah - of Moses" that formed and still forms the basis of Jewish belief. The disputes today over whether or not Moses wrote the entire Five Books of Moses do not take away from the importance of this man in the least. Without doubt it was Moses who formulated the basic teachings of Judaism, the concept of God, the idea of the covenant, the format of the mitzvot, the ethical and moral principles upon which Judaism is based, the role of the people Israel as God's holy nation.
All of this became the basis of everything we have - Torat Moshe - upon which later teachers built, formulating not only the Five Books of Moses, but also the later interpretations found in the Mishna and the Talmud. This is perfectly exemplified by the a rabbinic legend (Menahot 29b) that when God showed Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching in the academy, Moses did not understand a word of it and was perplexed. He was put at ease, however, when he heard Akiva say: "This is the law according to Moses." No wonder the verse says of him: "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singled out, face to face." (Deuteronomy 34:10).
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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