Jerusalem and Babylon / Moses, redacted
No character in the entire Bible receives more attention than Moses. The story of his life and leadership is spread over four of the five books of the Torah. And yet, half of his life, from the time he fled Pharaoh's wrath and settled in Midian to the moment God revealed Himself in the burning bush, is totally unaccounted for.
For about 60 years of Moses' life, all we know is that he was a shepherd. The Bible certainly gives us no clues as to why God selected a speech-impaired man who had spent three quarters of his life with sheep to lead his nation out of the slavery of Egypt and deliver them the law from Sinai. Apparently even Moses himself is baffled - "But who am I?" he asks after being told of his new job.
How did all those decades with the herd prepare him to be the greatest leader in history? What happened out there in the desert that transformed him from a hotheaded youngster to the wisest of sages? One midrashic story offers us a clue.
This midrash appears among other places in the "Ve-higadeta le-vincha" ("and you shall tell your son") stories that are printed in some old editions of the Passover Haggadah. It tells the tale of how one day, a small lamb broke away from the herd and ran into the wilderness. Moses ran after the lamb until finally, after many hours, he caught up with him at a water hole.
"Poor lamb, you were thirsty," said the gentle herdsman and carried the animal, cradled in his arms, back to the flock.
According to the Midrash, God saw the the distance Moses was prepared to go for one small lamb and decided this was the man who should lead the Children of Israel. As the leader of his nation, Moses didn't distinguish himself as being particularly decisive, well-organized, charismatic or good tempered, but he never lost his concern for the individual, as we see again and again throughout the Torah. This basic humility is what made him into a leader.
As we read the Haggadah on seder night, this Monday evening, we should reflect on why Moses, the main protagonist in the story of redemption from Egypt, is given no mention, save one offhanded reference.
Rabbis, commentators and researchers have offered various explanations to this near-omission, which could not have been coincidental. One of the more interesting solutions to the mystery of the missing Moses is a theological-political one.
The Haggadah was compiled over many centuries and probably reached something close to its present version about a thousand years ago, toward the end of the period of the Geonim in Jewish thought.
This was a time of schism, in which groups of Jewish sects had widely differing beliefs and interpretations of the religion. The greatest theological dispute was between the rabbinical descendents of the Pharisees from the Second Temple, the precursors of today's Orthodoxy, and the Karaites and Samaritans, groups who believed only in the literal meaning of the five books of the Torah and rejected rabbinical Judaism.
The Pharisees and those who came after them believed that the written law could only be relevant when coupled with a constantly evolving oral law, the basis for the Mishna and the Talmud and all the thousands of works of commentary and responsa that have been written over the last two millennia.
But the sects which rejected the oral law fetishized Moses. They worshiped him, in some cases even elevated him to the level of a god and believed that the messiah would be a "second Moses."
Could his absence from the Haggadah have been a reaction to all this? It seems highly likely, but still, how could they seemingly totally banish him? Maybe they reasoned that Moses himself would not have minded.
When pleading to God to forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf, he said "if you don't forgive them, then blot my name out of the book which you have written." He never thought the story was about him, not even about God, it was about the people.
Today's Haredi rabbis believe they are the direct spiritual descendants of Moses and the scholars of the Talmud, but their refusal to see the suffering of individuals and adapt halakha accordingly, their insistence that "innovation is forbidden by the Torah," is much more reminiscent of Karaism, as they blindly cling to ancient texts.
Over the last two weeks, one ultra-Orthodox leader, the centenarian Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has ordered his emissaries in the Knesset to block any new legislation designed to make the conversion process more friendly for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jews. He also wants to force the government to change the plans to build a much needed bomb-proof emergency ward at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.
In both cases, Elyashiv threatened a coalition crisis to uphold the most hidebound version of halakha, despite the fact that many Orthodox, even Haredi, rabbis believe that there is room for flexibility. Would Moses have wanted his name on this version of the Torah?