Posts Tagged ‘Moses’


For many Jews, it’s an embarrassment: inspiration for both anti-Semitism and self-questioning. I refer to Moses’ statement to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See).

The great teacher says, “. . . the Lordyour God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (Deut. 14:2). Many Jews and non-Jews misinterpret this as raising the people Israel above other nations for no discernable reason. But Israel’s selection entails not privilege but responsibility.

The Israelites, whose misdoings condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, were not chosen for their size—they were a small people—or their merits. Deuteronomy 7:8 relates that they were chosen “because God ‘kept the oath he made to your fathers . . .’” The Rabbis term this zevut achot, the merits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who held a special monotheistic vision. Thus a stiff-necked people was to be given a homeland. Why?

The late Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden—that of the kingdom of Heaven—of Torah and Mitzvot [commandments].”    

Israel is to be a nation of priests. This represents a goal, a status of holiness to be earned by accepting responsibility and its consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants priests rights and privileges unavailable to ordinary people, God also places them under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

Israel must accept its special status with modesty. The prophet Amos preaches that God also watches over other nations. “True, I brought Israel up / From the land of Egypt, / But also the Philistines from Caphtor [Crete] / And the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).

Rabbi Joel Rembaum states that God “maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval must be earned through right conduct, which all peoples can exercise.

The Canaanites sinned. Only for that reason did God cast them out of their land and give it to the Children of Israel. But the Rabbis do not denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews. They also are created in God’s image. All people, the Rabbis maintain, contain the Divine spark.

A midrash—a story trying to explain the biblical narrative—guides the Chosen People to exercise perspective. While Israel (the people, not the modern state) is to be praised for accepting the Torah, God previously offered it to all the other nations. Moreover, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama’s view that God held the mountain (Horeb/Sinai) over the Israelites’ heads and said, “’If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial.” The Israelites did not make a moral choice. They had no choice.

Treasured on one hand, the Chosen People are tasked to set an example for their siblings. Being the “oldest spiritual child” represents a daunting challenge.

This post was adapted from a discussion in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, available from me or at Amazon.

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’Tis the season when most Americans embrace Christmas. But not all. I have no intention of putting a damper on Christmas to explain the challenges this holiday presents American Jews.

I’ll start, as in the recent past, with a comic strip—this time, “Luann” by Greg Evans. On November 29, Evans began a new storyline. A secondary character, Leslie Knox, shows no interest in Christmas. His Uncle Al explains, “Les lived with a Jewish foster family till I took him in. I don’t do holidays, so he’s never had a big Christmas.” Uncle Al’s new wife states, “Well, he’s in for a treat.”

I hoped “Luann” would explore the reality that not every American celebrates Christmas, which shocks some Christians. The next two days showed Les being pessimistic about the gaudy Christmas decorations hauled out of storage. Then the storyline disappeared. Perhaps Evans was just noodling in public. Or maybe newspapers received negative feedback: Christmas and all its trappings being questioned? Un-American! I don’t know.

But what many Jews term the “Christmas Dilemma” got swept under the rug. Then the novelist and journalist Michael David Lukas wrote a New York Timesarticle titled “The Chanukah Dilemma”(12-1-18). His three-year-old daughter wondered why they don’t celebrate Christmas. He told her that Chanukah is their holiday. But he found his thoughts conflicted.

Chanukah, Lukas noted, marks the Jewish victory in 162 BCE over the Assyrian Greek king Antiochus IV, who polluted the Temple with pigs and statues of Greek gods, and attempted to destroy Judaism. The Jews rebelled, won and then cleaned and rededicated the Temple. What disturbed Lukas: The victory included killing Hellenized—assimilated—Jews. How can he teach his daughter to celebrate a holiday marking a victory over assimilation when they, American Jews, are assimilated?

Or are they? I suggest that Lukas’ desire to celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas removes him from that “stigma.” Americans are free to choose their religious practices—or reject religion. Lukas chose Chanukah—and Judaism. He is, of course, free to choose more: Send his daughter to a Jewish pre-school then religious school at a synagogue. Later, a Jewish day school. And observe Shabbat however he’s comfortable, as well as other Jewish holidays.

Moreover, Lukas can study Torah and other Jewish subjects by reading and/or taking classes. Whatever makes him comfortable. Being an “authentic” Jew starts, as Orthodox Chabad promulgates, with performing one mitzvah at a time. Thus “authenticity” encompasses a very big tent.

“Assimilation” itself is a tricky word. Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Diversity in Jewish thought represents a near-2,000 year-old tradition with influence from both Christian and Muslim scholars. Jews have also welcomed elements of the cultures among which we’ve lived—food, music, language, dress. And most Israeli Jews—the “paragons of Jewishness”—exhibit little or no interest in Judaism.

Michael Lukas doesn’t need to grow a beard and wear a black hat to be Jewish. Nor does he have to hide his identity, which only gives haters the victory they seek.

The death of a non-Jew, President George H.W. Bush, who—whatever your politics—displayed admirable decency and civility, provides an important reminder. ’Tis also the season to be kinder and gentler to everyone—including ourselves.

Happy Chanukah (this is day five), and to all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.

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People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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Last Saturday, I led Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel. We read Vayelech—which means and (Moses) went. This short portion presents the prophet’s last address—one more warning to forswear false gods—before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He is 120. He is about to die. He will be left behind. I wondered how he felt.

Moses childhood no doubt was confusing. Born into a despised Hebrew family—Pharaoh has ordered all Israelite male babies to be put to death at birth—he’s raised in court by Pharaoh’s daughter. But he remains a Hebrew at heart. As a young man, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beat an Israelite. He hits and kills the Egyptian. Someone sees him. Moses flees east to Midian and becomes a self-professed stranger in a strange land.

God has plans for Moses. Moses isn’t interested. At the burning bush Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He has, he says, a speech problem. Still, Moses makes a speech Fidel Castro in length that fills the Book of Deuteronomy forty years after the Exodus. It is Moses who, with help from his brother Aaron, brought Egypt to its knees and has kept the fractious Israelites together in the wilderness. Yet Moses is a watchword for humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3).

He’s great. He’s humble. Oh, he’s also irascible. While Moses is atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites demand that Aaron make a visible “god” for them. Aaron produces a golden calf. When Moses comes down, he’s furious. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Exod. 32:20).

Problems with anger management? Moses is only human. Exodus 11:3 refers to him as “Ha ish Moshe”—the man Moses. When the Israelites thirst for water in the wilderness, Moses blows it. Rather than speaking to a rock to draw water as God commands, Moses strikes the rock with his staff (Numbers 20:11). Yes, water flows. But God punishes Moses severely. He will never be able to enter the Promised Land.

So here we encounter Moses on what appears to be his last day. He finally seems resigned to his fate. He’s just passed leadership on to Joshua. He’s about to give Israel a song of faith and a blessing that will outline the future. Then he’ll see Canaan from Mount Nebo before being gathered to his ancestors. So what is he thinking?

I hope Moses has measured his life carefully and has a sense of perspective. That while he recognizes his failures—it seems he didn’t circumcise his younger son Eliezer (Exodus 4:24–26) as required by Israelite law—he appreciates what he’s accomplished.

We are all frail. I’d like to believe that Moses’ last thoughts tip the scales in his favor. Jews long have revered him as Moshe rabbeinu—Moses our teacher. More than three millennia removed, Moses’ life informs us that people with common weaknesses and failings may do uncommon things. May we see this possibility in ourselves.

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Pharaoh never gets it. Even hail, locusts and darkness fail to move him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. It takes a tenth plague, the death of the firstborn males—his own son included—to prompt Pharaoh to recognize his wrongdoing. Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.

How interesting that Armstrong’s long-awaited “confession” to Oprah Winfrey regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) came during the week in which we read the Torah portion Bo (Come). For years, Armstrong denied doping accusations. The stronger the evidence grew, the greater his denials—and attacks against his accusers. According to media reports, he allegedly bribed cycling agencies and threatened teammates and others who spoke out.

For his part, Pharaoh eventually seems to get the point and relents to a greater power. He releases all the Israelites along with their herds and flocks to worship God in the wilderness.

Perhaps Lance Armstrong finally recognized the scope of his wrongdoing—he flat-out cheated then lied. Perhaps he could no longer live with his conscience. I won’t deny him that possibility. Or perhaps he can no longer tolerate his lifetime ban from cycling and triathlon, and believes a confession enough for reinstatement—although officials want him to admit his guilt under oath before considering his case. True, there’s a difference between being king of an empire and king of the cycling world. Regardless, Armstrong may share a great deal with Pharaoh.

As we learn, Pharaoh’s change of heart leaves much to be desired. Even before Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might” (Exod. 3:19). God gets Pharaoh. In Egypt, God informs Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3). Is Pharaoh fated to do evil? The biblical text reveals that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Only after the sixth plague did God harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to Maimonides and others, Pharaoh ultimately forfeited his right to repent.

And after that dreadful tenth plague? Next week’s portion (BeShellach—In Sending) shows Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. He harnesses his chariot and leads six hundred wheeled terrors in pursuit of his former slaves. The Egyptian army follows the Israelites right into the Reed Sea—and drowns.

So which stage along the continuum does Lance Armstrong occupy? Has he genuinely repented? Or does he fear a cascade of legal actions—from monetary to potential prison time? Many people in the spotlight get caught violating trust and the law. Mea culpas are easy to mouth but not always believable.

The lure of success and power can warp anyone’s judgment. We can choose to start down the slippery slope and take our chances. Or we can draw a line based on moral and ethical principles.

If we undertake the former—if we harm others of our own volition—and are discovered, the least we can do is not only acknowledge our guilt but also accept the consequences.

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I should have posted this last week when we began reading the Book of Exodus—Sh’mot (Names) in Hebrew. But I needed time to mull over the first two chapters. Names play a big role. Yet the Torah seemed to display a strange oversight.

Exodus begins by naming the sons of Israel (Jacob), who come down to Egypt under the protection offered by their brother Joseph. We know of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and the rest. We also know what their names mean since Genesis (B’reishit) tells us why their mothers named them as they did (aside from Jacob naming Benjamin). When we meet the first patriarch, Abraham, he already has a name—Abram—but God changes it to indicate that he will be the father of a great nation. Isaac, and before him Ishmael, also receive meaningful names. So does Jacob and his twin, Esau.

In the ancient Near East, knowing the name of a human or a god gave a person a degree of power over that being. Thus names often are guarded. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “man”/angel before reuniting with Esau. As sunrise nears, the angel renames Jacob Israel—one who strives or wrestles with God. But when Israel asks his opponent’s name, God’s messenger responds, “You must not ask my name!” (Gen 32:30).

Moses, too, makes inquiry of the Divine. At the Burning Bush, he asks God’s name because the Israelites in bondage in Egypt will want to know Who is sending Moses to them. God answers, but cryptically: “Eyeh-Asher-Eyheh”—“I am What I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exod. 3:14). Later, God reveals God’s ineffable name—YHVH—not pronounced by Jews, who instead say Adonai (Lord) or, in more observant circles, HaShem (The Name).

There’s the background. Now for the question: Guess who doesn’t have a name? Moses! Pharaoh’s daughter gives him that name (Moshe in Hebrew) when she has the three-month-old boy floating in a small ark drawn out of the Nile. Yet the biblical narrative never tells us “Moses’” birth name. Amram and Jocheved are his parents. Aaron is his brother and Miriam his sister. Moses’ original name remains a mystery.

The Midrash—stories seeking to fill gaps in the biblical narrative—yields many names for Moses. Leviticus Rabbah gives Moses seven names, other sources ten, including Yered (descent), Avigdor (master of the fence) and Chever (companion or connector). But all this is speculative.

Why does the biblical text tell us nothing? Perhaps Torah seeks to emphasize Moses’ deeds as an adult. Or perhaps the name Moses represents an irony too strong to be diluted. As Pharaoh’s daughter has a servant draw him out of the river, so the elder Moses draws the Israelites out from Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea—payback for the previous Pharaoh’s order: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile…” (Exod. 1:22).

Moses’ name, like his burial place, is unknown. We have his words. We have his deeds. Still, Moses forever remains a mystery beyond our reach.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at SAN CAFÉ is available at, and

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of


My cousin Howard called me on Wednesday. It was great to catch up with him. Better yet, it was great that Howard is still here. He had a brain tumor. An operation and radiation have given him clean readings so far, and he’s pretty much back to normal. If, having had a tumor, life can ever resemble normal again.

But as Howard said in so many words, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” Yet how we go makes a big difference. An uncle of mine, 96, hasn’t long. Hospice has been arranged so he can die at home. I hope this comes to pass. My friend Yury died of pancreatic cancer in a hospital two years ago. Neither of us would have chosen that path.

If death is on my mind this week, it’s only natural. Yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of my parents’ wedding, somewhat sandwiched in between the anniversaries of their deaths. And this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) brings us two significant deaths. The first is that of Miriam. We know little about it. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there (Num. 20:1).” A quiet death we presume and hopefully a dignified one.

The second death is Aaron’s. And while Aaron’s passing is seemingly peaceful, it has always disturbed me. After the Israelites arrive at Mount Hor, God instructs both Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24).” Earlier, Moses had struck a rock rather than speaking to it to bring forth water. God was not pleased. For now, Aaron must pay the price.

Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, his successor as High Priest, ascend the mountain. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and puts them on Eleazar. Aaron dies. No farewell tour. No parties. No speeches and toasts. And of course, no video tribute. It all seems so callous. Seemingly without emotion, one generation hands off its duties to the next. The Israelites only realize what has happened when Moses and Eleazar come down. They wail for thirty days—equivalent to today’s Jewish mourning period known as Shloshim.

What can we say? We all die. How else can we make room for our children and grandchildren? And our end will not be glorious. A funeral. Some kind words (true or not). Maybe an obituary in the newspaper (exaggerated or not). Hopefully for Jews, Kaddish recited and a yarzheit candle lit on each anniversary of our passing until no one is left to remember.

But the story of Aaron’s death is also the story of his life. With it all, he died with dignity. And the Sages tell us that Aaron—who pursued peace and sought to bring people together—was beloved where Moses, our great teacher, was feared.

As for me, I’m not prone to worrying about when and how I’ll die. I’d much rather focus on how I’m living.

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