Friday, January 20, 2006

Shemot (Torah)

Moses the Man

This Shabbat’s opening portion of the Book of Exodus begins on two parallel tracks: the Jewish people in Egypt and the story of their enslavement, and the biography of Moses. Generally speaking, the personality of Moses as such is not emphasized in the Torah. We know far less about his “personal” life than we do about the patriarchs, about whom there is a whole family saga. Throughout most of the Torah, he is seen almost exclusively in relation to the people—as their leader in the showdown with Pharaoh and in the subsequent Exodus; confronting them in the incidents of the Golden Calf and during their numerous back-slidings in the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers); interceding on their behalf with God—or in relation to God and his Torah.

Here, we have as it were the “pre-history” of Moses: the events in his personal biography that led to his emerging as who he was. Moses of course played a double, or even triple role: as leader, as prophet, and as teacher. Maimonides (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, Ch. 7) explains that prophecy is neither purely a matter of the Divine Spirit resting upon a person, nor of the natural development of (extraordinary) human capabilities, but a combination of both. Rambam explains there how, after a person has attained a high level of development in the intellectual, moral and spiritual realms, he may merit to prophecy. Here, in Chapters 2 and 3, we see what made Moses who he was—at least in terms of the natural, human factors in his biography.

The account begins with his birth under the sign of persecution (which the midrash elaborates with various miraculous features), and his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughters. There, growing up in the royal palace, he enjoyed protection, security, comfort, and an education—benefits that most of his brethren did not have. But what must have been most important to his psychological development is that, perhaps thanks to the irony of his own real mother nursing him (unbeknownst to Pharaoh), he discovered his true identity. His awareness of this anomaly, of the tremendous gap between the ruling class within which he was raised and the enslaved people who were his true brethren, must have caused him great anguish, and no doubt goes a long way toward explaining the innate sense of justice he later displayed.

“And Moses grew up and went out to his brothers“ (2:11). Rashi explains that the word “and he grew” (vayigdal) here refers to maturity (political, within Pharaoh’s court; but also emotional and moral?), rather than mere physical growth, as it did in the previous verse. The two incidents related there—his smiting of the Egyptian taskmaster who beat a Hebrew slave, and his chastising two Hebrews for fighting with one another—illustrate his emerging sense of the need to act, including the use of violent means if necessary.

These youthful, formative experiences were followed by a long period in the wilderness, as shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro, the Midianite priest. We often find periods of exile and even of imprisonment playing an important role in the biographies of political and revolutionary leaders. It provides time to think, to grow, to reflect, as well as to read, study and write. Long periods of time spent alone, particularly in the bosom of nature, are also important in the development of mystics and religious visionaries: the silent, rocky, desert wilderness of Sinai must have been an ideal site for turning his mind away from the immediate, transient concerns of human society towards the eternal and the transcendent. Moreover, the task of shepherd, as elaborated by the midrash ad loc., is ideal for cultivating the qualities of caring, compassion, and responsibility for others so needed of a leader.

The Burning Bush —Ehyeh asher ehyeh

All this led up to the crucial encounter with God at Mount Horeb, at the “burning bush that was not consumed.” Theologically, this may be seen as a central symbol for the Jewish conception of God. He is mysterious, ineffable, never seen directly but only through his manifestations. The rejection by Judaism of visual imagery for God, the preference for “the voice” over the ”the image,” has been commented upon too often (most notably and at greatest length by the Rav ha-Nazir, Rav David Cohen) to make any elaboration necessary here. The bush itself has at times been taken as a sign of the Jewish people (constantly subject to harm and attack, but never destroyed), or may be taken as a symbol of God Himself: a constantly burning fire (“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God”: Deut 4:24, where it is a symbol for God’s passion).

Arthur Green, in his personal theological essay, refers to the Divine name as flowing, ever-changing, both all-embracing cosmic and like breath. He speaks of the four-letter name of God as “an impossible construction of the verb “to be”… a grammatically impossible conflation. Y-H-W-H is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun…. This elusiveness is underscored by the fact that all the letters that make up this name served in ancient Hebrew interchangeably as consonants and as vowels…. The name of that which is most eternal and unchanging in the universe is also that which is wiped away as readily as a passing breath… To express it differently, God is both being and becoming, noun and verb, stasis and process.” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name, pp. 18-19) This elusive, dynamic image of God, as captured in the “dancing” four letters of the Divine Name, may be seen as well in the image of the fire within the bush.

Indeed, the encounter at the bush culminates in the statement of the Divine name as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” — “I shall be as I shall be.” Theologians and philosophers have made much of the ontological implications of this name: God as the apotheosis of Being. Yet, quite interestingly, Rashi on this verse explains matters very differently. “[God says:] I will be with them in this trouble, and I will be with them in their subjugations in other exiles’ [Berakhot 9]. [Moses] said: … ‘Am I to mention to them their other [future] troubles? Is not this trouble enough for them!” Here, ehyeh is not indicative of some profound ontological philosophy about God as Being, but a simple statement of Divine presence with man: what Heschel calls, if I remember rightly, Divine empathy. God’s most salient and significant characteristic is his presence with human beings in their troubles and suffering: “I am with him in trouble”; “In all their troubles he is troubled”; “He who heals the broken-hearted, and soothes their wounds”; etc. But there is no real contradiction here. The essence of God may be perceived on many different levels. For the mystic (or philosopher), who transcends his own existential human condition, and is able, at least for brief moment of lucidity and heightened insight, to in some limited sense see the world from God’s vantage point, so-to-speak, God is Being, the All, the summum bonum of all that was, is and will be. But for the ordinary person, God is seen in relation to our existential needs and difficulties. From this perspective, God’s simple presence, His compassion and empathy and redemptive acts, are the most significant sign of his nature. Some New Age thinkers may speak of mankind in coming generations gradually transcending the existential and entering into cosmic-mystical consciousness. So be it; only time will tell—probably more time than the life-span of anyone reading these words. The rest of us are not only bound to our existential situation, but by-and-large have not even the strength to think beyond our present troubles (hence Moses’ “Is not this trouble enough for them!”).


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