Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Torah’s Jewish Sense of an Ending: A Yasher Koyach to Moses

The Torah’s Jewish Sense of an Ending: A Yasher Koyach to Moses
by James A. Diamond
James A. Diamond, Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo. He is currently a Fellow of the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project sponsored by the Herzl Institute in collaboration with the John Templeton Foundation. His latest book is Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, published by Cambridge University Press ( This is his first contribution to the Seforim blog.
Every year, the joy I experience on Simchat Torah, is somewhat diminished by the apparent dismal ending of Deuteronomy whose closing we celebrate on the way back to creation and beginnings once again. Rather than climaxing in the rebirth of a nation and entry into the territory long ago divinely promised as a homeland, it ends in death and a frustrated life. Not only does it conclude on a morbid note, but it does so regarding Moses, the noblest protagonist of the narrative, the one who least deserves a premature death. His career begins with his first venture outside the cocoon of a privileged life within the royal palace walls, triggering an empathic act of heroic proportions. Without any knowledge of the Israelite God or the principles and norms that God stands for, Moses reacts violently out of an inherent sense of justice to prevent human suffering inflicted by those he was raised to recognize as compatriots. His subsequent intervention in an aggressive dispute among his own native tribesmen, also to prevent maltreatment of another human being, meets with a ‘mind your own business’ attitude, along with an ominous prospect of betrayal. Rejected by the Hebrew community to which he belonged by birth, and by his adoptive Egyptian community in which he was nurtured, for his opposition to injustice no matter its source or target, he became alienated from both. There remained no choice but to live out his life in exile- a stranger in a foreign land.[1]

A divine commission, plunging him back into that very orbit of rejection to complete what he had started, shattered what little peace he found in an estranged existence. He in fact proved himself to be precisely the most qualified to lead by marshaling repeated arguments against his qualifications for the mission of national liberator, ranging from insignificance (Who am I?)[2] to lack of confidence (They will not believe me)[3] to inarticulateness (I am not a man of words).[4] The politician who doesn’t seek out position, and who is compelled by others to run for public office on the strength of his principled reputation, is the one least likely to fall prey to the seductions of power that accompany that office. In fact the rare objective description of Moses’ character in the Bible, a humble man, more so than any man on earth,[5] reflects a sense of self-effacement that rules out self-interest as a decisive factor in his public life. Hesitatingly, he accepts and liberates the Israelites only to encounter years of incessant complaint, ingratitude, and rebellion. Ceaseless aggravation and insult escalated to the outrageous extent of the peoples’ longing to return to the “comforts” of that very hellish existence Moses had fought so courageously to release them from.

This is the man that God summons to the top of a mountain where he can almost touch everything he had dreamed of, fought for, and ardently dedicated himself to, and on whom God then abruptly drops the curtain- and there you shall not cross.[6] It is difficult to see this as something other than unbecoming of God, profoundly deepening the pain of a leader who is on the precipice of his life’s goal. Why would God prevent Moses from taking that tiny step necessary to consummate his mission? Why would God withhold a future from the man who was not only instrumental in attaining it, but was the man who originally surrendered his own entire regal future in the name of justice? At the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings, are we to celebrate a malevolent God who punishes his most devoted “friend” by denying him the joy of completing a quest He Himself imposed upon him? And shouldn’t the punishment fit the gravity of the crime? Slighting God’s honor (You did not affirm my sanctity in the eyes of the people),[7] surely does not warrant sanctioning it as a capital offence by denying Moses the fruits of his relentless sacrifices when they are within reach. And finally, doesn’t this reading land precisely in the season for forgiveness, a time for the supreme Being to have set a supreme example of mercy, graciousness, and magnanimity, when the simple cost would have been to yield His own glory? God seems to have missed the lesson of Moses’ humility.

As always though, in the long history of Jews reading their sacred texts, those texts’ problems goad the reader into rethinking what may at first seem obvious or apparent. As the eminent biblical scholar James Kugel points out, the Bible’s irregularities, in this case morally and theologically troubling aspects, are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster-like Jewish interpretive tradition to construct pearls around them.[8] Perhaps the way to approach this final episode is to reconsider God’s “punishment” as really a favor and concession to Moses’ character and sensibility. On closer examination it may in fact be graciously consistent with Moses’ biography, and superbly commemorates who he authenticated himself to be.

The key to these final verses is their casting of Moses’ relationship to God in terms of equals who meet each other face to face. Earlier in the Torah that same phrase, face to face, captures the familiarity of a normal human conversation, as one man speaks to another.[9] Genuine dialogue can only take place when both participants express their own views, assert their own personalities, and are open to debate. Any conversation wholly dominated and monopolized by one participant amounts to a monologue that promotes only listening but not responding or true engagement. Understood in this way we become mindful of Moses’ inaugural meeting with God who, for the first time in biblical history, formally introduces Himself by name. However, the puzzling name, I will be whoever I will be (ehyeh asher ehyeh),[10] is a tautological non-name. Rather than a being that is fixed by definition, confined to a particular place, and possessing jurisdiction over an exclusive domain, God tells Moses that He cannot be pigeon holed into a pre-conceived framework that a specific name might enable. God is a being in flux, encountered differently by different human beings in different circumstances. He is an evolving God, rather than a God that simply and immutably is, there to be called on ritually by those privy to His name. As such, this open-ended non-name conveys a relational being, a God of perpetual becoming, that cannot but be elusive. God is continually shaped and reshaped by the respective partners with whom She establishes relationship. Moses’ life is paradigmatic of this Jewish spiritual model.

Returning to Moses’ origins, God’s awareness of Israel’s suffering in Egypt immediately follows a quick succession of Moses’ actions, all sharing the common feature of interventions curtailing injustice and oppression. Considering the literary progression of events it is quite plausible to conclude that Moses’ autonomously motivated acts instigated by his own “seeing,” or evaluation of circumstances, provokes God’s immediately reported own “seeing” and “knowing” of Israel’s suffering- And God saw the Israelites and God knew.[11] The Jewish Publication Society’s translation exquisitely captures this nuance with its rendering of “knew” as “and God took notice of them.” In other words, God, who was oblivious to human suffering until then, was inspired to emulate Moses’ moral activism with His own moral awakening- an act of maturity with which the declaration “I will be” resounds. Rashi’s comment on “God’s knowing” expressively understands this divine realization as an emergence from apathy, transitioning from “ignoring the plight of His creation” to “focusing His attention on them.” God’s new consciousness, compelling His own intervention is evoked by Moses’ example. It is a premiere instance of God imitating man, the inverse of the primary religious mandate of imitatio dei, or emulating God.

Both in the Bible itself and later rabbinic traditions Moses continues in this vein of affecting and shaping God’s will and actions. When God categorically declares His intentions to wipe out the Israelites in response to their worship of the golden calf, Moses refuses to accept it as an irrevocable fait accompli and argues God out of it. It is as if God announces His genocidal intent in order to provoke a visceral moral response to it - “Nu, Moses, what do you have to say?” What God doesn’t want, it seems, is the silent submission to His will so often associated with religious orthodoxy. The Rabbis positively accentuate the boldness of what normally would be taken as insolence by picturing Moses grabbing God and threatening not to release Him until He submits to the demand of a pardon.[12] Moses proves his spirituality precisely by refusing to blindly succumb to divine fiat, and instead, transforming God Herself with his extraordinary devotion to humanity. An opinion in the Talmud even portrays God as lamenting the death of Moses for the loss of the one who mediated between Him and His children.[13]

Indeed, the Rabbis push this idea radically further. The ancient rabbis noted Deuteronomy’s inconsistencies long before modern biblical criticism “discovered” them. However they offered a far more radical and ethically provocative solution than the determination of different author’s hand at play in the composition of the text. Some laws in Deuteronomy, which contradict previous versions of them in the Torah, are attributed to Moses’ own creative revisions, which God subsequently endorses. For example, Moses replaces God’s explicit endorsement of vicarious punishment in Exodus, visiting the iniquity of fathers on children, with a just antithetical version in Deuteronomy- every person shall be put to death for his own crime.[14] Moses doesn’t simply amend and repeal divine legislation and theology to keep it current. He humanizes God.

Against this background the Torah’s ending is recast from a cruel insensitive scene into one that poignantly depicts a final reunion of two dedicated friends who have mutually enriched each other’s existences. Should Moses have extended his leadership tenure and guided the people into the land he would have been faced with simply more of the same anguish and suffering he had experienced up until this point. It would surely have entailed the wrangling, the complaints, the jealousy, and the power struggles that accompany the burdens of state building. God privileges the visionary Moses with an ocular vision- and God showed him the whole land[15] - that guarantees the posthumous success of his efforts. God does not invite Moses up the mountain to deny him entry into the Promised Land (I have let you see it with your own eyes But you shall not cross there[16]), but rather to preempt the pain of doing so, while assuring him that his vision will inevitably become a reality. The verse reads better as “I have let you see it with your own eyes and there you need not cross.” Moses is thus spared being mired in the partisan machinations that, as the historical record of the books of Joshua to the end of Kings evidence (let alone the contemporary history of the modern Jewish state!) would certainly have ensued. His record then of autonomy and initiative, even in the face of divine obstinacy, is preserved and remains untarnished by the political intrigue that would have inevitably consumed him to the very end.

The final three verses spell out the absolute uniqueness of Moses’ three pronged legacy- an unparalleled face to face intimacy of with God; the efficacy of the miracles that the Lord sent him to display in Egypt against Pharaoh; and all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before Israel.[17] Moses’ singularity is first evident in his private life communing with God, and then in two dimensions of his public life, combatting enemies and sustaining friends. Yet, note the subtle distinction made between Moses as God’s emissary vis-à-vis the Egyptians in the second last verse, and Moses in his own capacity vis-à-vis Israel in the last. It may have taken miracles to convince the taskmasters of the Israelite God’s invincibility to release their repressive stranglehold on their slaves. However, the establishment of a cohesive nation and its continuing viability cannot rest on miracles and otherworldliness. That requires human autonomy and human sensitivity to the social, political, and moral dimensions of a human polis, which Moses qua Moses independently sets in motion for his successors to follow.

Rashi’s Torah commentary analogously ends with a striking midrashic explication of this final verse that accentuates its extraordinary emphasis on the human dimension. Rashi oddly identifies that awesome power wielded by Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel with his breaking of the Tablets at Sinai. As Rashi states, Moses “decided on his own to break the tablets publically and God’s will acquiesced to his will, offering him congratulations (yishar kochacha) on breaking them.”[18] Rabbinically the Torah’s ending picks up on its patent sense of concentrating on human capability, but empowering it to the utmost extent of overcoming God, of persuading God to defer to the human perspective. In fact this midrash is the very source for the idiomatic salutation of yasher koyach (may your strength be firm) in response to any job well done, particularly those that benefit community. Every single positive human accomplishment and societal contribution then resonates with its origins in Moses’ exertion of the very outer limits of human capacity.

This is why it is so important for the Torah, despite its minimalist narrative style, to emphasize the seemingly superfluous detail of the hiddenness of Moses’ grave- no one knows his burial site to this day.[19] Given the phenomenon prevalent in our own time of worshipping dead saints, it is not difficult to imagine the idolization Moses’ gravesite would have certainly attracted. Shockingly perhaps to many, yet soberly, Moses Maimonides discourages frequenting cemeteries and halachically rules in his legal code against the erection of monuments on the graves of the righteous (tzadikim), “for their words are their memorials.”[20] As Moses’ life and death illustrate, Judaism must never lapse into a cult of the dead but must be a celebration of life. Moses’ grave is concealed precisely so that the focus will always be directed toward a life lived and profound teachings transmitted.

There is a well known debate in the Talmud concerning the authorship of the last eight verses in the Torah that record Moses’ death, with one opinion attributing them to Joshua’s hand. However, even those that consider Moses to have penned the report of his own death admit that there is a change in its manner of transcription, imagining Moses writing in an inconsolable silence, “with tears.” Even more moving is the alternative interpretation of this phrase where the words on the parchment were literally inscribed with tears rather than ink. An intriguing halakhic consequence regarding the rules governing the formal reading of these final verses in the synagogue informs this heartrending debate. Its ambiguous Talmudic formulation that a single individual reads them attracts a number of interpretations, but the dominant one is that they must be read as one unit by one person without any interruption (Rashi).[21] Maimonides however interprets it stunningly and uniquely as dispensing with the standard requirement of a prayer quorum of ten males (minyan) for their recitation! His rationale is “since the sense of these verses refers to what occurred after the death of Moses they have become distinct.”[22] Maimonides’ ruling strikingly affords a normative framework for my philosophically theological reading the Torah’s final scene. His halakha captures the shift in narrative focus and mood of the transition from ink to tears, from the people at the foot of the mountain to Moses alone at its summit, from community to the solitary individual. It promotes a dramatic reenactment of everything I have argued about Moses’ characterization in these final verses- a demarcation of a private space for the individual, for the emergence of one’s uniqueness, for a semblance of the relational spiritual intimacy of the face to face, and for the creative power of the single person who stands out from the crowd. By granting halakhic legitimacy to this Torah reading outside the formal framework of a minyan, Maimonides transforms every Simchat Torah into the possibility of momentarily experiencing, however partially, the awesome power of Judaism’s incomparable lonely man of faith.

And so the Torah ultimately climaxes, neither with an impressive tombstone, nor with preternatural transcendence that is the subject of its penultimate verse, but with the spiritual strength and moral defiance of a single human being. It carves out a space for human beings in what can all too often slip into a dangerously God intoxicated universe that overwhelms human autonomy rather than inspire it. It concludes with humanness rather than godliness. That is Moses’ life and that is his epitaph- a joyful and Jewish sense of an ending.

[1] Exodus 2:22.
[2] Ibid, 3:11.
[3] Ibid, 4:1.
[4] Ibid, 4:10.
[5] Num. 12:3.
[6] Deut. 34:4.
[7] Num. 20:12.
[8] See his seminal study in James Kugel, “Two Introductions to Midrash,” Prooftexts 3:2 (May 1983): 131-155, reprinted in Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 95-97.
[9] Exod 33:11.
[10] Exod 3:14.
[11] Ibid, 2:25.
[12] bBerakhot 32a.
[13] bSotah 13b. Here I follow Rashi’s explanation. Maharsha, in his Hidushe Aggadot, actually identifies this talent directly with assuaging God’s anger against Israel because of the golden calf incident.
[14] On this see Tanhuma, Shofetim 19. There are many other sources where not only Moses, but patriarchs, other prophets, and even rabbinic sages convince God of the correctness of their opinions and actions. To mention just a select few see for example Shemot Rabbah 15:20, Bereshit Rabbah, 44:21; and Midrash Tehillim 4 that commences with the idea that this ability singles out the greatness of the Jewish nation.
[15] Deut. 34:1.
[16] Ibid, 34:4.
[17] Ibid, 34:10-12.
[18] See Sifrei 357 and bShabbat 87b.
[19] Deut. 34:6.
[20] Mishneh Torah, Avel, 4:4.
[21] bMenachot 30a; bBava Batra 15a.

[22] Mishneh Torah, Tefillah, 13:6. Rabad, caustically attacks this ruling as “bizarre," sarcastically questioning “Where did the quorum go?”

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