Sunday, March 9, 2014

7 Adar, once again

And here we are again at the 7th of Adar, Moshe Rabbeinu's birthday and yahrtzeit. Like every year, I found myself thinking a lot about Moshe in the leadup to this day.

I've thought about Moshe in different ways over the years (see here and here and here, for example), but here's a new angle, tied to Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. When, at the end of the book, Willie Keith assumes command of the Caine, Wouk describes it thus:

Even at anchor, on an idle, forgotten old ship, Willie experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship. He was less free than before. He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened on in his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before. He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined. (pg. 520, 2003 paperback edition)

The description resonates, from my shul rabbi days. Back then, I lived as part of the community, feeling that kind of responsibility for each individual, each family, each of the community's institutions. [It is, probably, the element of the rabbinate I miss most; as I have said on other occasions, leaving the shul rabbinate narrowed me as a person, painfully. But I digress.]

In thinking about Wouk's words, I wonder what it was like for Moshe when he took command of the Jewish people. Not when he first approached Pharaoh in Egypt, when the Jews' day-to-day existence was governed by Egyptian society. Not when he summoned the plagues, when the Jews still received food and water via Egyptian mechanisms, living in Egyptian homes, using Egyptian public facilities. But when the Jews finally broke away from the Egyptian infrastructure, and Moshe became fully responsible for their well-being. What was that like?

It occurs to me that Moshe's initial moments of solo leadership came when the Jews made their three-day journey to the Sea, and his first crisis was when they found the Sea in their way, and the Egyptians coming up behind them. This was the moment when Moshe became the leader of the Jews.

At that juncture (Shemot 14:15), HaShem turned to Moshe and said, "מה תצעק אלי? Why call out to Me?" And, of course, we wonder: The text does not mention Moshe calling out to Gd; only the people called out to Gd. Why does Gd address this to Moshe?

I've addressed this problem before (here, for example), but here is a new thought: Perhaps Moshe did not call out, but Moshe did as he had always done before – he waited for Gd to lead. Gd was the commanding officer, and Moshe was the exec who would carry out the Divine order. And so HaShem said to Moshe, "Why are you waiting for Me? It's your ship now, you are the commander. Time for you to take charge."

In which case the next words that Gd speaks, "Speak to the Children of Israel, and they will travel," are not so much a command, as a laying out of the facts: When you tell them, the Jews will travel. You are now in charge."

What did that moment feel like for Moshe? How frightening was it, even with Divine miracles, to become the human being upon whom millions relied? How broadening, how enervating, how invigorating, how terrifying, how empowering and how crushing... How large and how small do you feel, Moshe, standing between the Sea and such an overwhelmingly large mass of needy human beings? Twelve tribes of people who were third-generation slaves but who yet retained a memory of their saintly ancestors, Avraham and Sarah? People who had suffered bitterly, who had been whipped and tortured and murdered? What is the experience of connecting to all of those people, at once?

Did you know beforehand that this was coming, that there would be a moment when you would be handed the keys and told to drive the bus? And once it did happen, how did you not feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, and by the needs that persist even in a world where bread comes from the skies and water from a stone?

Did it become easier when you added elders, or did that just add another layer of responsibility? Or did it all become "normal" at some point? Did that "normal" perhaps become shaken when you faced leadership crises, as in Korach's rebellion?

Are all of these questions meaningless, when you had Gd with you? Or did the Eye looking over your shoulder make the challenge even greater?

So many questions; Moshe remains unfathomable to me.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

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