Sunday, December 15, 2013

Meeting Moses: Stammerer & Seer, Worshiper & Workaholic, Poet & Peacemaker, and Only Too Human



            I like Moses a lot. I commiserate with him: how can one be “the humblest of men” but at the same time, lead a people so fractious, argumentative, and independent-minded as us Jews? Was he the best person for the job, rather than his independent-minded sister Miriam, or his diplomatic brother, Aaron? Self-destructively workaholic, misogynistic, and not much of a husband or father (his two sons are mere names, and they quickly vanish into history), yet known to all of us as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses, our Rabbi, our teacher. Over a lifetime of reading and chanting Torah, constantly seeking a chidush, something new to say about him, I have grown very close to Moses, warts and all. We rabbis need to stick together.
            In this parsha/Torah reading, we find Moses during his salad days, when his world was young and fair. Cast adrift by his loving but fearful mother, Yocheved, during the Jewish-boy-baby-drowning campaign of a xenophobic Pharaoh, his devoted elder sister, Miriam, follows his wicker basket downstream on the Nile, and boldly speaks right up to the Royal Princess of Egypt when Her Majesty discovers and wishes to adopt the baby, offering Yocheved as a wetnurse.
We can only speculate about Moses’s upbringing in the Pharaoh’s palace, and the tension there must have been between the ministrations of the princess, his adoptive mother, and those of Yocheved, his natural mother: for the rest of his life, he was to have conflicting issues about women, certainly with powerful women. These certainly influenced his feelings about the role of females in Judaism and in the world, until he met the Daughters of Tselofechad (Num. 27:6-8), whose right of inheritance he championed. As for fathers, his own strained relationships with natural, absentee father Amram and adoptive grandpa Pharaoh must have been distant, if they existed at all. We know this from the true meaning of his name: in the Egyptian world where leaders were known as Ramses (son of Ra, the sun-god) or Thutmose (son of Thut, god of writing and wisdom), Moses’s name translates as “Son of whom?” since his natural father was unknown to the Egyptians (The linguistic wordplay in Ex. 2:10 suggesting that his name means “drawn out of the water” is a later Hebraic invention.). Did this affect his dealings with an all-powerful Deity who insisted on being regarded as Father of All?
            So were formed all the elements of Moses’s later career as chief of the prophets, who spoke with God on a higher level than Isaiah or Jeremiah ever could aspire: his killing the Egyptian taskmaster as the first blow in the battle for Israelite freedom; his deed being disparaged by his later detractors, Datan and Aviram; his flight to Midian, there to become son-in-law to Yitro/Jethro, whom Jewish tradition acclaims as one of the first Jews-by-choice, and his Vision of the Burning Bush—a prophecy both magnificent (the Sovereign of the Universe contained within a mere bush) and humble (it was only a thorn bush, after all). When God calls out to him, ordering him to free the Jews, he initially refuses, setting the standard for many reluctant prophets to come, such as Gideon, Elisha, and Jonah. Shepherd and seer, stammerer and spokesman, a man outwardly Egyptian but nascently Jewish—Moses remains the beau ideal for Jewish leaders in all times and all places, as he yearns to understand the Mysterious Deity whose commands will change his life and alter the arc of human history.