Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Aspiring to defy Gd

What Soren Kierkegaard did for Avraham’s faith in Fear and Trembling, someone with an equally eloquent pen ought to do for Moshe’s defiance.

Kierkegaard wrote, with moving, powerful, dramatic beauty, of Avraham’s Akeidah, his decision to follow Gd and bring his son Yitzchak as a korban. He decried those who would infantilize Avraham’s obedience to Gd, who would view it with “the child’s pious simplicity.” He demonstrated, vividly, that this Akeidah was not an act of simple faith, but, rather, a soul-wrenching, terrifying, faithful devotion to a shockingly cruel Divine demand.

Someone ought to do the same for Moshe Rabbeinu’s multiple defiances of Gd, celestial acts which are yet fodder for so many aggravatingly simplistic divrei torah.

Like every 7th of Adar, as I observe Moshe Rabbeinu’s yahrtzeit this year I am awed by a new aspect of that human being whose life, whose power, overwhelms anything I can fathom. This year, it’s his defiance.

Moshe defies Gd multiple times, in multiple scenarios, including:
Gd orders Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews; Moshe declines.
Gd instructs Moshe to give the Jews the Torah on the 6th of Sivan; per the gemara, Moshe alters the date to the 7th of Sivan.
Gd declares His desire to destroy the idolatrous, rebellious nation; Moshe denies Gd the opportunity.
Gd informs Moshe that he will die; Moshe instructs Gd in choosing a new leader.
Gd instructs Moshe to remain in the desert; Moshe rails against his fate, before finding acceptance.
And yet, through it all, Gd describes Moshe as בכל ביתי נאמן הוא, the most loyal member of the Divine house. ככל אשר צוה ה' את משה, Following every word Gd instructed Moshe, so Moshe spoke and so Moshe did.

The more I contemplate it, the less I comprehend it.

Or to borrow from Kierkegaard regarding the Akeidah, “The older he became the more often his thoughts turned to that tale, his enthusiasm became stronger and stronger, and yet less and less could he understand it.”

Tanach is filled with people who refuse Divine instructions. Pharaoh. Bilam. And, on the good side, Yonah.

What marks Moshe’s refusal as unique – although Yonah’s has elements of this same character – is that his is not denial, it is defiance.

Pharaoh says, “Who is Gd, that I should listen?” Bilaam says, “Gd will have to follow my will.”

Moshe, on the other hand, accepts the reality of Gd fully, accepts the Torah of Gd fully, accepts the service of Gd fully. Moshe believes in Gd, he does not deny Gd’s existence or authority.

It seems to me that Moshe’s awareness of Gd is what fuels his defiance. He is Gd’s child. His refusal is born out of love for Gd, in the way that adult children often absorb and practice their parents’ values, and yet – in fulfilling their understanding of those same values – defy their parents’ instructions.

And so Avraham is labelled by Gd, אברהם אוהבי, “Avraham who loved Me,” but Moshe is labelled בן ביתי, a member of My household, the one whom I loved.

I never cease to be enthralled by Moshe. He is so far beyond anything I could ever become, and yet his story speaks volumes to me as a person, as a rabbi, as a Jew. His is iconic leadership and iconic abandonment, iconic selflessness and iconic self-awareness, iconic devotion and iconic defiance, iconic failure and iconic success.

יהי זכרו ברוך.


  1. See also the coda from today's essay by David Plotz.

    As I read the book, I realized that the Bible's greatest heroes—or, at least, my greatest heroes—are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon demanding divine proof before going to war, Job questioning God's own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them. Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.

  2. Isaac-
    Thanks; that article's quite an interesting read.