Middle Israel: Who was Moses?

The origins of the man who met God, defied nature and regulated life remain as obscure as his aftermath.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
The Seder has always raised assessments of the Jewish situation. From Inquisitorial Spain to occupied Poland, Jews recalled with the same wry smiles Pharaoh's whim that "every son that is born, you shall cast into the river." When faced with plots to dispossess them, from medieval Germany to czarist Russia, Jews needed no commentary for Pharaoh's classic contemplation "let us deal wisely with them." And in our time, while counting the Ten Plagues after the Six Day War, or reciting the demand "let my people go" while the East Bloc unraveled - Jews the world over could be forgiven for feeling both vindicated and euphoric. Depressing or inspiring, literal or figurative, freedom's first manifesto will always be relevant. This year, however, for the Jews of Israel, the Exodus's most relevant theme should be the man the Haggada conspicuously ignores: Moses. THE ORIGINS of the man who confronted royalty, met God, defied nature and regulated life remain as obscure as his aftermath. The Hebrew infant's emergence to greatness from a box abandoned in the gushing Nile can remind one of the legends about Rome's mythical founders Romulus's and Remus's placement in a box on the Tiber, or of the story about Sargon - founder of history's first known empire, Akkad - being left in a sealed basket in the Euphrates some 1,000 years before the time of Moses. Was Moses, then, but another legendary national originator? The Bible says nothing about Moses's childhood and youth, though it is clear that he grew up among Egyptians, apparently in the royal palace. The impulsive choices he made as a young adult - to kill one stranger on the spur of the moment, then attack another and flee to a distant land - set the stage for subsequent fits of rage, from the striking of the rock to the shattering of the tablets, which add up to an otherwise saintly image's very human face. Still, it is only natural to suspect that a man who on one mountaintop reached God, and on another vanished altogether, was either a demigod or a fable. To the people who danced around the golden calf, Moses was a god, which is why they felt his perceived departure demanded a substitute. To Sigmund Freud (Moses and Monotheism), the biblical narrative concealed a more prosaic saga about an Egyptian rebel whose high moral demands made the Israelites murder him and replace him with someone more flexible. RESPONDING TO such attitudes (though writing earlier than Freud), Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am protested in his classic essay "Moses" that this "hero of all heroes looms tall as a pillar of light at the threshold of our history," regardless of whether he actually did what is attributed to him, or even existed. The "existence and substance" of the man "is but a matter for scholars," he wrote, "but we have a different Moses, our Moses, the one whose character is planted in our nation's heart for generations and whose impact on our national life has not relented from antiquity until this day, and whose historic existence does not at all depend on your investigations." For Ahad Ha'am, the spiritual Zionist who had little appreciation for power and believed that only a small elite of Jews should immigrate here, Moses was neither a man of war ("not even once do we find Moses personally leading an army") nor a statesman ("when he had to face Pharaoh and negotiate with him, he couldn't find his feet and his hands without Aaron's help"), and in fact not even a conventional lawgiver - for the laws he gave were to be fulfilled only by future generations. Rather, Moses was the ultimate prophet, a man of truth and extremes, one who cannot help but pursue justice. "Since he is the man of the extremes, he cannot compromise justice - just like he cannot compromise truth - for the sake of any secondary purpose." MIDDLE ISRAELIS disagree with this insight. To us, Moses was indeed a leader, and rather than leave the pursuit of ideals to prophets alone, we demand that our leaders at least aspire to Moses's model of leadership. Moses took Aaron with him as God told him to do, but unlike our politicians, he never allowed the spin doctor to call his shots. Moses may have been saintly in shunning political compromises and personal rewards, but like any Israeli leader, he too asked bitterly: "How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?" He clearly was a poor administrator, and may also have been an autocrat whose idea of handling the opposition was to have the earth swallow it. Yet he showed the people a path and led them on it through fire, water and drought. So clear was his vision and so forcefully conveyed that it was pursued even after his death. Contemporary leaders, certainly ours, would do well to take stock of the man who hated hollow speeches and did not hesitate to throw the truth in people's faces, a man whose reflexive response upon sight of an evil man beating an innocent one was to beat the evil man to death with his bare hands, a man who assumed leadership in spite of himself, and in doing so gave up palatial luxury for penniless, and sometimes breadless, homelessness. True, Moses was so much more than an ordinary leader that he had to be extracted from the Haggada lest he be mistaken for an angel. Yet even ordinary leaders, like those we once had here, while never possessing all of Moses's virtues were still blessed with some of them: One had vision, another resolve; one was exceptionally modest, another scrupulous; one was charismatic, another selfless. Never before, however, have Israeli leaders lacked simultaneously vision, charisma, resolve, frugality, chastity, fidelity and respect for the law. And so, should your son on Monday night ask a Fifth Question - "who was Moses?" - tell him: Moses was everything your current leaders are not.