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The Man Moses

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Moses: A Human Lifemoses-1
By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
(Yale University Press, 2016)
In the end, no one could even find his grave.

Throughout the 120 years of his life, Moses had been a wanderer, a fugitive, a sojourner through foreign lands. For four decades he had served as the mouthpiece of the Lord God; giver of His laws; liberator and leader of the Hebrews through years of flight, revelation, rebellion, and imminent triumph. Yet now, as he took his last breaths on the banks of the Jordan River, no great funeral awaited him, nor any monument to mark his resting place. The book of Deuteronomy tersely describes the moment:

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.

A lonely end after a life of wandering and hardship. But look again at that description of his burial, the astonishing detail slipped casually into the dry statement of fact. The hand that buried moses was the same hand that commanded his fate. The Lord himself dug Moses’ grave.

The contradiction inherent in this story — the startling contrast between the humblest and lowliest of men, and the most exalted of prophets — helps to explain what has made Moses such a compelling figure for the past three millennia. As the central character of four-fifths of the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), and as the designated amanuensis for God’s laws, he is of course the human figure at the core of modern Jewish religion. But he is also a strange and tragic narrative figure in his own right, whose rise and fall is rivalled (on a purely literary level) only by that other great founding father of Jewish nationhood, King David. Yet there is no single, straightforward story of Moses, told from start to finish in the Old Testament. Rather, the arc of his life is an amalgamation of different and sometimes contradictory stories, songs, speeches, laws, and even building instructions that collectively add up to the sum of a life. Only viewed from the distance of time and space (from, as it were, a God’s-eye perspective) can the trajectory of the man’s life be seen.

This is one of the key challenges facing Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book Moses: A Human Life, the newest entrant in Yale University Press’ series of Jewish Lives — and to this must be added the inescapable fact that Moses, technically speaking, never lived at all. Very much unlike King David, whose legends accrued around the moses-2life of an actual Iron Age ruler, Moses is almost certainly an imaginary construct, whose life and personality take shape wholly from the accumulated writings of authors, poets, and theologians. Writing his life ought to be akin to biographing Hercules or King Arthur: entertaining for fans and true believers, but ultimately an exercise in futility.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Zornberg has not only succeeded, but achieved the seemingly impossible: contributing a fresh and original interpretation to a figure pondered over for more than 2,500 years. She does it by dispensing from the outset with questions of reliable historicity: despite the book’s title, this is not a biography at all, but an extended theological and psychological essay, taking as its basis a personality that is both the product and the origin story of the civilization that created it.

That origin story begins where it might have ended: with western literature’s first recorded act of genocide. Throughout the book of Genesis, the embattled children of Israel have been perpetually threatened with extinction through the sheer difficulty of reproduction. Despite their status as God’s chosen people, the Biblical patriarchs from Abraham onward all required divine intervention simply to produce another generation of offspring. But as the book of Exodus begins, the Israelites, now settled comfortably in Egyptian territory, find themselves imperiled by their success at fruitful multiplication. The Bible describes the bleak irony (here, as elsewhere, I’m quoting from the New Jewish Publication Society translation) :

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground…

The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”

In the midst of this primitive ethnic cleansing, with its unwitting but unavoidable shadows of the Jewish future (note that casual reference to the shifty political loyalties of Israelites in Egypt, which might have been drawn straight from the columns of Der Sturmer), Moses survives by the unlikeliest of chances. Again, the Bible narrates:

A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived a bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. Then she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girls went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”

moses-3A fairy tale origin, then, but in reverse: not a peasant boy secretly a prince, but a prince of Egypt secretly a Hebrew slave. The curious reader is left to wonder how much Moses knew about his ignoble origins. The Bible itself is characteristically unforthcoming (stories of Moses’ youth are left to the province of Midrashim, the body of post-Biblical interpretive literature composed by rabbinic sages), but it isn’t long before the young man is forced to take sides. When Exodus next takes up the story, we find a full-grown Moses rashly dealing a death blow against an Egyptian overseer abusing a Hebrew slave. News about the murder soon gets out, and Moses makes a beeline for the wilderness of Midian, his days at court now vanished. Zornberg keenly observes that the reader’s uncertainty about Moses’ self-knowledge — does he or doesn’t he know that he’s a Hebrew, too? – means that the moment carries both a layer of irony, and moment of discovery:

Perhaps, as we originally assumed, the young prince does not know of his connection with these slaves. Perhaps it is the narrator who refers to the uncanny bond of brotherhood between prince and slaves…Or, perhaps, fraternity of precisely what Moses discovers, when he emerges from a clear and untroubled Egyptian identity. Precisely when he witnesses human suffering, a new fraternal consciousness arises within him. Once he allows himself to see, he arrives obliquely at a knowledge of brotherhood. This is the meaning of va-yigdal – “he grew”: this is his first crisis of maturation.

In any case, the slave turned prince is now a prince turned fugitive from the law. And his transformations are not done yet. Having assumed the life of a humble shepherd in Midian, and taken a wife from among the friendly locals, Moses one day encounters an unusual sight: “a bush all aflame, and yet the bush was not consumed.” This is the God YHWH of the Israelites, awoken as if from extended slumber to the plight of his people, and ready to task Moses with the liberation of His chosen tribe. But why this man? Why, when so many full-fledged and well-pedigreed Israelites are ready and available should God make a prophet of a scraggly refugee with an identity crisis? The question certainly occurs to Moses, and the dramatic scene descends almost to comedy as the would-be liberator musters every excuse at his disposal to turn down the job:

But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” and the Lord said to him, “Who gives a man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else your agent.” The Lord became angry with Moses…

Here, within moments of meeting each other, Moses and God have established a Punch-and-Judy relationship that will persist throughout the prophet’s career: Moses hems and haws, evades and bickers, feels genuinely unable to perform the tasks God has assigned him, and engages the Lord in endless rounds of arguments and justifications. But to Zornberg, these seemingly disastrous personality traits are precisely what make Moses an indispensable leader. His identity, perched on the uncertain border between Israel and Egypt, gives him the unique capacity to be born anew into the fresh identity of prophet and leader.

At the same time, his unfeigned lack of assurance is a sign of his essential humility: Moses can lead a battered people because he feels, despite his aristocratic upbringing, a part of them. He is an outsider at his core, and a prophet must be able to see the world from the outside in. Zornberg writes:

The nature of this process is perhaps best summed up in the singular description the Torah gives of him: “Moses was very humble, more than any human being on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3). The Hebrew formulation — kol ha-adam — suggests not simply that he was the humblest man, but that his humility transcended the human range. Moses’ essential difference from the whole of humanity lay in his “humility,” his anava.

moses-4Moses is in fact the only individual in the Bible to be described in this way. Perhaps this refers to his social situation as well as to a moral dimension of his life. Because of his ambiguous origins and his solitary encounter with God at the Burning Bush, he has no social standing among the people. He has no clear position in the class structure. He is both inside and outside, anomalous.

Thus, Moses the man shades into Moses the metaphor: not for nothing has he been the mascot of a people who, for 2,000 years, have lived uncertain lives in foreign lands. Through Moses, the Jews turned the traditional vices of diaspora existence — questionable loyalties, nebulous ethnic identities, lack of clear placement in the social structure — into divinely-ordained virtues. Zornberg is at her best when she reaches far and wide to present this case, drawing not just from the Bible and its commentators, but from a vast constellation of art and literature, including Renaissance painters and postmodern novelists. Here, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are used to illustrate the Mosaic metaphor of the displaced Jew:

Between the Deronda image of the redeemer, who will lead his people from exile to the Promised Land, and the inconsolable sorrow of history embodied in the figure of Austerlitz, the Moses figure is identified in kabbalistic literature as the soul-root of Israel. His history is the history of his people. All will receive the Torah through him; when when he moves his lips to convey the sacred text, their lips move as well.

But to return to the narrative: YHWH does, in the end, have his way, and Moses returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the liberation of the Hebrews. The dramatic episode of the Ten Plagues ensues, in which God batters Egypt with a succession of chastisements until Pharaoh finally, albeit temporarily, agrees to release his slaves. Then, after a race through the desert and a miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds, the Chosen People are free to make their way through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. For those of us reared on Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille, and thus inclined to see this as the dramatic high point of the Moses story, it may come as a surprise to see just how briskly Exodus whisks through these events (they occupy only 11 of the book’s 40 chapters). For traditional Jews, however, it is not the exodus itself that provides the climax of the Moses story, but the revelation that follows: the magnificent sound-and-light spectacle on Mount Sinai at which God hands down his eternal Torah.

Indeed, from a historical perspective, one could argue that this is the only part of the story that matters: the rest of the Moses narrative is mere filigree around the marble column of God’s law. And the Bible certainly gives us a scene to match the moment, with the whole of Israel gathering trembling at the foot of the mountain while Moses alone ascends to gaze upon the majesty (but not the actual face) of God. This singular honor, afforded to no other mortal in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, has a physically transformative effect on Moses: returning to the Israelites, he is said to exude “beams” or “rays” from his own face, and is forced to veil himself in public lest he overwhelm them with the reflected power of YHWH. He has been, quite literally, irradiated by the Lord.

Here, again, Zornberg is intriguingly far-flung in her choice of illustrative sources, turning to the work of 19th century painters (specifically the late works of J.M.W. Turner) to capture the effect of Moses on his people as he repeats the words of God:

“Wonderfully effective” thick gobs of white paint driven by hog tools into the surface — Turner’s painting becomes itself an image of the effectual imagination which reshapes reality. Seeing through the lumpy world, his perspective intensifies so that we, too, will see what is, after all, there. Words are the equivalent means at Moses’ disposal. They generate rays that are at once God’s, his own, and Israel’s.

moses-5Yet from a reader’s perspective, Moses’ ascent toward God marks the start of his decline here on earth. Having received from YHWH the divine revelation, and spent half of Exodus and the entirety of Leviticus dutifully repeating it to the assembled throng, Moses proceeds to lead his people through 40 years of forced wandering through the desert, waiting for the faithless generation of slaves to die off before the conquest of Canaan can begin. These disconnected episodes of dissolute wandering punctuated by periodic rebellion, which make up the Book of Numbers, represent a steep decline from the earlier, heroic period of Moses’ life. It is as if, his task as the Lord’s messenger having been completed, Moses has now become an anachronism: a hindrance and an irritant to a young generation for whom slavery in Egypt is only history. All this would be poignant enough were it not for the final, tragic twist of Moses’ career: having given his life to lead the Israelites to Canaan, he is now forbidden by God from entering the land himself.

Writers and commentators have long observed that this ultimate knife-twist gives the Moses story the arc of a Greek tragedy: in the 2nd century B.C., a Greek-speaking Jew called Ezekiel the Tragedian wrote exactly that, in a theatrical work entitled the Exagoge. Yet what Moses’ fatal act of hubris actually was remains something of a mystery. The Bible’s own explanation is famously, almost comically, insubstantial: having been commanded by God to order a certain rock to produce water, Moses chooses to strike the rock with his staff instead. For this minor (and conceivably accidental) deviation from God’s precise wording, Moses is fated to live an incomplete life.

Pious rabbis have historically chosen to see this episode as a lesson that no man, however exalted, is above the commandments of God. For a modern reader, the greater impression is that God is simply looking for excuses. What, indeed, are we to make of a deity who forces obedience from reluctant prophet, only to smite him when he proves as imperfect as he had feared? In the exodus story, Pharaoh is depicted as the flighty and authoritarian tyrant par excellence against whom Moses must resist. Yet has not God here outdone even his earthly equivalent?

On this question, Zornberg does not quite bring herself to propose an explanation. But there is at least a suggestion that the relentless confrontation Moses brings to his role as prophet — the Catskills bickering we observed back at the Burning Bush — might possibly have something to do with it. Quoting from a rabbinic Midrash imagining Moses as a “defense counsel” for Israel against a wrathful God, Zornberg asks:

What gives Moses license to behave in such a vigilante manner? Particularly surprising is the dramatic detail of replacing the prosecutor inside the court: in effect, Moses is changing places with Satan, from an external to an intimate position (before the king’s face). By a kind of sleight of hand, he substitutes himself for Satan and defends the people from a “satanic” (aggressive, oppositional) place…

This audacious dynamic lies at the heart of many rabbinic interpretations of the biblical text. Moses acts as His Majesty’s Loyal opposition, as Yochanan Muffs aptly terms it. He has, in a sense, internalized the function of prosecutor, the angry, antagonistic role; he uses his anger in order to “avert God’s anger.”

And so he died, alone but for God in an unmarked grave beneath the sands. But the human life of Moses is, after all, an imagined life: perhaps we are free to imagine its end in our own way. For my part, then, I choose to imagine it as one final act of defiance; one last confrontation with a tyranny beyond control. You may command water from the rock, says Moses, but it will be my own staff that draws it. I may be slow of speech and slow of tongue, yet I will make myself heard.

Moses, to the last, kept arguing. Perhaps he is arguing still.

Zach Rabiroff is an Editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.