Posts Tagged ‘The Exodus’

SO WHAT WAS MOSES THINKING?

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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MANDELA AND JEWISH WISDOM

Nelson Mandela’s funeral is several weeks behind us. As it happens, now is a good time to consider how Mandela’s philosophy of looking forward finds antecedents in the Talmud and the Book of Proverbs.

Mandela’s greatness was in thinking that while great wrongs had been done to black South Africans, hatred and recrimination serve no good purpose. The new South African society must look to the future without calls for revenge masquerading as justice.

A man who spends 27 years in prison and rejects hatred of his jailers is worth listening to. I hope that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have reflected on this. The ancients certainly did.

This week’s Torah portion Be-Shallach (Sent Out), Exodus 13:17–17:16, presents Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. After releasing the Israelites from bondage following the ten plagues, he and his army chase the Israelites into the Reed Sea (Red Sea is an improper translation of Yam Suf). The sea splits. The Israelites pass through. The pursuing Egyptians drown.

Should Jews—should anyone—treasure revenge? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) relates: “In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would ye utter song before me!”

Proverbs 24:17–18 offers related instruction: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; / If he trips let your heart not rejoice, / Lest the Lord see it and be displeased, / And avert His wrath from him.”

Yes, attacks should be repulsed and crimes punished. But we must take a broader view regarding those who offend and those who are offended. God may have found it necessary to slay the Egyptians and assist the Israelites to win many military victories, but this does not make those deeds pleasing. Delighting in destruction pushes us across the boundary between self-defense and cruelty. All humans are God’s handiwork.

Do we get that? And can it lead to peace in 2014? Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry still believes that a framework for a two-state agreement can be reached by April. I’m skeptical, but I hope to be proven wrong. And I could be if Palestinians and Israelis emulate Mandela.

Jodi Rudoren wrote in The New York Times (1-2-14) regarding Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, “The gulf between the two sides on the issue highlights a broader question critical to the outcome of the talks: whether a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.”

I’m not addressing the issue of a Jewish state here. De facto, that’s what Israel is. But making room for others’ histories—on both sides—can bring peace closer.

The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I add a corollary: Those who dwell solely on the past also are condemned to repeat it.

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