Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Moshe Rabbeinu's Yahrtzeit

You can take any figure from the Torah you wish, any leader, any king or statesman, any prophet or judge. Avraham, Miriam, Shemuel, Devorah, Ezra, whomsoever you choose. No one in the entire Torah's canon of outsized heroes can hold the slightest, slimmest, most evanescent candle to Moshe.

I speak the obvious, of course, but Thursday night, the 7th of Adar, is Moshe Rabbeinu’s yahrtzeit and birthday, and every year this date - in both Adars, when there are two - makes me brood. It’s more than a day when some minyanim skip tachanun, and the chevra kadisha holds a dinner; it’s a day to think about the legacy of a giant beyond giants, a leader and teacher whose life and accomplishments and tragedies are so off-the-scale that they should have just retired the word “leader” from the dictionary when he died.

Moshe’s life is a series of successes:
Meeting G-d
Bringing the Jews from Egypt
Crossing Yam Suf
Receiving the Torah at Sinai
Bringing bread from the heavens and water from stones
Overcoming rebellion
Bringing the Jews to the very border of Israel.

And Moshe’s life is about humility, this עניו מכל אדם, the most humble man ever known:
He bears the abuse of the Pharaoh and the Jews equally.
He goes to Dasan and Aviram to make peace when they join Korach’s rebellion; he does not demand that they come to him.
He throws in his lot before G-d with the Jews who have sinned, rather than stand apart on his own merits.
He is told by G-d that he cannot enter Israel, but instead he must die - and so he does, as loyal as ever.

And Moshe’s life is about hubris, the greatest hubris imaginable:
He is selected by G-d to lead the Jews out of Egypt, and he refuses the job.
He defies G-d’s desire to destroy the Jews for the Golden Calf, saying, “If that is what You will do, then wipe me out of Your book” - I want no part of this Torah.
Again, after the Spies, he defends the Jews before G-d.
G-d says He will pick a new leader, and Moshe tells G-d how to choose a leader. Imagine! Does G-d need Moshe’s advice on how to choose a leader?!
And, of course, Moshe turns to G-d and says, “Show me Your glory!” “Explain Yourself!”
The man has no fear, whatsoever.

And, yes, Moshe’s life is about anger, some level of righteous frustration at which we can barely guess:
Anger at the Egyptian beating the Jew, and then at the Jew who is about to strike another Jew.
Anger when the Jews build the Golden Calf.
Anger when the mirrors are brought for the Mishkan.
Anger at Korach’s mutiny.
Frustration at having to serve as a nursemaid for every last Jew.
Anger at the Jews who cry out for water and wish to return to Egypt.

And Moshe’s life is about tragic, heartrending futility:
He brings G-d’s word to the Jews, who first believe but then doubt him.
He goes to Pharaoh, who defies him as well.
He takes the Jews to Sinai, where they create the Golden Calf.
He wants to bring them to Israel, and a generation - his generation, product of his hard work, his virtual children - is condemned to die in the desert.
He marries Tzipporah - and feels obligated to separate from her.
He has two children of his own, neither of whom take leadership positions.
He performs miracles that generate faith for millions, and then he is condemned for failing to perform one of those miracles to its height.
He is brought to the edge of Israel and allowed to peek in - but he may not enter.

I read Moshe’s life over and again, and it touches something deep, deep inside me. Part of it is my own pretentious hubris; he’s a leader and I’m a leader, right? Sure, in the same way that I am tall and, say, Mount Everest is tall. No, it’s not that I think I can in any way empathize with Moshe; it’s just that the themes of his life are so compellingly dramatic, writ so large, that I am paralyzed if I think about them too long, and I cannot turn away.

I see Moshe and wonder if he was ever happy in any sense I can imagine, if the song at the Sea was his normal experience, per the prophet who requires joy in order to speak to G-d. But how could he have been happy, this prophet, root of all prophets, who was cut off from direct communication with G-d for 39 desert years?

I see Moshe and wonder at his incredible mercy:
Moshe endangered himself to save another’s life - and later demanded that G-d take his life, in defense of the nation.
Moshe fought hostile shepherds to save Yisro’s daughters.
Moshe battled G-d to bring Egyptians (ערב רב) out of Egypt along with the Jews.
Moshe pleaded with G-d for the lives of the Calf-builders, and the Spies, and the water-complainers.
Moshe sat as a judge from morning to evening.
Moshe gave up home and hearth to serve his nation.

Moshe gave us a leadership philosophy in two, contradictory/complementary parts:
First, he told G-d to pick a leader who would do all for the people, going to war before them and then leading them back to camp. Who would guide them in all things, who would be a caring shepherd.
Then, he told Joshua, “You will bring this nation into the land.” The gemara explains that he told Joshua, “If they don’t listen, take a staff and strike them on their heads! There can be only one leader for a generation, not two.”

We arrive at the end of the Torah and see a man who started out as a prince, became a shepherd, and then melded both into a personality that could lead a ragtag nation of millions from slavery to sovereignty, from despair to pride, from a religious vacuum to a Tabernacle. We see a man who spoke to G-d “face to face,” whatever that means, and who is identified as a “member of G-d’s household.” We see a man who despised power, but made it his own to such an extent that it’s impossible to imagine biblical leadership without Moshe.

And we see a man who is so close to perfection, who has done so much to bring a nation so far, who has dedicated himself to serving G-d, who is the quintessential עבד ה', servant of G-d… and upon whom G-d has no mercy, taking him up the mountain to see Israel and saying so painfully, “I have shown you this land with your eyes; there you shall not cross.”

I don’t know enough languages; I cannot find the words to describe what I see in Moshe. Can such a man have been real? And yet the Torah puts him before us, as a role model for all who would lead. What a daunting prospect… what an empowering promise.

The words are inadequate, but יהי זכרו ברוך.


  1. Wow. I didn't realize it was possible to write a hesped for someone who died millenia ago.

  2. Some rabbis are just really good at eulogizing people they never met, when necessary.

  3. sometimes a person can paint a picture without ever meeting the subject. It is like a deaf person composing a symphony. Painters paint from the mind's eye. Musicians compose from the mind's ear. You compose from the heart and the mind.


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  5. Your posts on Moshe Rabbeinu are really something. (Remembering this fact brought me to your blog tonight, where I've just spent a fair while reading through them.) You talk about Moshe as a whole person, which is rare, and though I'm not sure anyone can really do him and his life justice, I think your posts are closer than anything else I've read. כל הכבוד for going further than is usual, and bringing your readers along. Thanks. (And happy birthday.)

  6. AnDat-
    Thank you very much; I appreciate it - and your good wishes.