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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