Moses’s hand-to-mouth life

The moral trajectory of Moses, his development as a man and leader, can be traced in the ongoing struggle between his mighty hand and his slow tongue

HIS FATAL error: ‘Moses Striking the Rock,’ Jacopo Tintoretto, 1563 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
HIS FATAL error: ‘Moses Striking the Rock,’ Jacopo Tintoretto, 1563
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.... I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.’ So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab.... Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses... in all the signs and wonders... and in all the mighty hand and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses performed” (Deuteronomy 34:4-12).
The greatest tragedy of Moses’s life, marked this week on Adar 7, is perhaps also its greatest conundrum. Moses, first among the prophets of Israel, servant of the Lord, the man who performed great and terrible deeds, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. For all of his signs and all of his wonders, Moses’s one fatal error – hitting the rock instead of speaking to it – resulted in his dying at the threshold to the Land of Israel.
What did Moses do that was so wrong? How does such a grave punishment fit a seemingly minor crime?
Answers are many, and various. Eager to justify God’s harsh judgment, commentators heap on Moses all manner of sin. He failed to sanctify the divine name. He lacked faith. He succumbed to the vice of anger. He was held to a higher standard than most men. He was implicated in the fate of his generation.
Yet rather than try to squeeze such exegetical drops from the rock of the biblical text, I’d like to suggest a different approach. If we simply take a step back, if we zoom out and regard the story of Moses as a whole, the answer, I believe, becomes remarkably clear. For the moral trajectory of Moses’s life, his development as a man and leader, can be traced in the ongoing struggle between his hand and his mouth.
LET US go back to the beginning. We know little about Moses’s early childhood, but where the Bible is brief, the midrash is quick to elaborate. When Moses is just a few years of age, we are told, Pharaoh – concerned that this Hebrew foundling would rise to power and oust him from his throne – places before him a piece of gold and a smoldering coal. Though Moses reaches for the gold, his hand is pushed over to the coal by the angel Gabriel. The badly burned hand flies up to his mouth, transferring the wound from fingers to tongue (Exodus Raba, Shemot, 26). Thus, from the very beginning, Moses chooses his hand over his mouth, sacrificing the latter to save the former.
And so Moses becomes a man of the hand. He grows up, his mouth scarred, “slow of speech and slow of tongue” – a stutterer (Exodus 4:10). Like many people who have trouble expressing their emotions, he acts them out. The first thing we see him do as a grown man is strike an Egyptian dead in a fit of rage, burying his body in the sand (Exodus 2:12).
Afraid of the wrath of Pharaoh, Moses escapes to Midian, where he becomes a shepherd. He encounters God in the burning bush, and is charged with taking the people out of Egypt. “B-B-But I am not a man of words,” he stammers; I am a man of the hand, and a leader must speak (Exodus 4:10). God, in response, turns his hand white with leprosy, as though to say, You will not be able to rely on your hand forever, Moses. At some point, you will have to learn to use your mouth.
So Moses returns to Egypt, with his mission and his shepherd’s staff – an elongated hand. With this elongated hand he performs miracles; “stretch[ing] his staff” over Egyptian skies, waters and earth, he smites the land with 10 plagues, until “with a high hand” he leads the people out of slavery (Exodus 8-10, 14:8). As a man of the hand, a political leader, Moses is a resounding success.
Once in the desert, however, his mission changes. He must become a religious leader, a teacher, instructing the people in the ways of the Lord. He must talk. Yet Moses remains quick to act and slow to speak. The man so long accustomed to spreading out his hand doesn’t seem able to open up his mouth.
With an outstretched arm he parts the Red Sea, and with his staff he provides the people with water; by “the hand of Moses” are the people counted (Numbers 4:49), and through his “steady hand” they defeat Amalek (Exodus 17:12); with his hands he brings the tablets down from Sinai, and with his hands he smashes them.
Very many actions, very few words. In the rare moments Moses does speak (his own words, not God’s), he is always terse, and angry, and short. He no longer seems to be stuttering, but it is as if the man used to speaking “mouth to mouth” with God can’t quite bring himself to talk to the people (Numbers 12:8). He cannot contend with their shortcomings, and has no patience for their flaws.
And so, when Moses hits the rock rather than speaking to it, it is not a onetime error. It is a failure, the last and greatest, in a series of failures to transcend the hand and become a man of the mouth. This is where Moses falls short, and it is for this, ultimately, that he is punished. Unsuccessful in his mission to become a teacher, a guide to the people, he does not merit to “bring [them] into the land” (Numbers 20:12).
Curiously, though, the moment Moses understands what it is like to founder and fall, to be human, his mouth opens. He begins to speak. And once he starts, he cannot stop. He goes on and on, in a breathless monologue that will last until the end of his days. All the emotions pent up within him, for which he had never found the words, come pouring out; so much so that the midrash asks how the mouth that had uttered “I am not a man of words” becomes the mouth to speak all the “words” of the Book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy Raba, Devarim, 1). Moses, at last, becomes a man of the mouth.
If there are any lessons to be learned from Moses’s hand-to-mouth life, they are, I believe, these: First, when you have to talk – talk, don’t shoot. There is a time for action and a time for words, and we must not be quick to act when talking might do.
Second, and more important, is that we must never be too crestfallen by our failures, for they may hold the key to our greatest success. It is often our lowest, darkest moments that force us to become everything we can – and ought to – be.
The writer is the editor-in-chief of Maggid Books (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) and a teacher of rabbinic literature at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.