My 4 1/2 year-old son started Sunday School at Congregation Beth Sholom a few weeks ago. As it’s Simchat Torah time around these parts, his music teacher taught the kids Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe. When he got home, I got him to sing it with me. We danced around the room a bit and I faked my worst Ashkenazi accent: Toyreh Tziva Lanu Moyshe (“Torah Moses commanded us”). Jonah said something about the name Moshe and I told him it was my own Hebrew name. He asked me where the name came from so I, of course, had to start telling him about the Biblical Moshe and his life and times.
As I retrieved all the Moses stories I could think of from my brain’s file cabinets (or should I say storage disks?), I started thinking a little more closely about the broader themes of the stories I was remembering. Then I started thinking that Moses’ life as told in Exodus seems an allegory for the struggles of Jews throughout their history.
Moses’ pregnant mother hears of an Egyptian edict that all male Jewish infants will be drowned. After she gives birth, she tries to hide the baby. But after several months, she finds this too dangerous and decides that the only way to save her baby (and as a parent it’s not hard to imagine how horrible such a predicament would be and how terrifying the prospect of your baby’s almost certain death) is to weave a basket of bulrushes and hide the baby in the marshes along the Nile.
When Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to the river, she finds the baby there and takes pity upon it. What is amazing is that she knows the boy is a Hebrew and spares him nevertheless. She, in fact, is rebelling aginst her own upbringing and her own father in saving the baby. Moses’ sister, Miriam, bravely comes forward and offers to provide for the princess a Hebrew wet nurse for the baby. They bring the boy back to the court and she raises it as her own (the princess shields Moses’ secret identity from Pharaoh himself). Little Moses becomes a prince of Egypt.
As a young man, Moses witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beat a Jewish laborer. Enraged by the injustice, Moses intercedes and beats the bully to death. Pharoah finds out and pursues Moses to kill him. Thus begins Moses’ flight into the Jewish underground from which he eventually emerges to lead the Jews from Egyptian slavery to freedom.
It isn’t hard to imagine the rage and ambivalence Pharaoh would feel toward Moses as he implores him for freedom on behalf of the 600,000 Jews of Egypt. After all, Moses was once a favored prince perhaps even an heir to the Pharoanic throne. Now, he’s turned his back on his coddled past and thrown in his lot with slave rabble. Though part of him must have wanted Moses dead for such a betrayal, the only reason why Pharaoh would not have killed him would be because he once adored him as the apple of his eye (this is my own psychological speculation and not in the text). Don’t we love stories with such built-in dramatic tensions?!
As I wrote earlier, Moses life appears to me as an allegory for the complicated choices and compromises Jews have made throughout their history. We are born (especially during dangerous epochs like the Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust) in silence and secrecy. We seek to hide our identity when especially vulnerable from the brutes and bullies who find no compunction in taking our lives from us. We even sometimes resort to adopting the cloak of a double life to survive. Like Moses, we become our oppressors.
Imagine the excruciating fear of living such a double life and the trauma that it must inflict on your psyche. Imagine the dread of exposure by one’s enemies. Imagine the psychological burden of wearing an external mask for non-Jews and an internal identity for your compatriots. It’s almost too excruciating to bear.
And Moses bears it as long as he can until he witnesses the brutal beating. Then the external catalyst of the attack on a fellow Jew melds with all the frustration of living that double life for so long. That’s why Moses explodes in such rage and kills that Egyptian. In a sense, he’s killing his past life and the compromises it forced upon him. But by killing the comfortable life he knew, he leaves himself completely naked before fate. He doesn’t know where he can go. He has no safe harbor.
But he does manage to flee and find refuge with the priest Jethro and there marries his daughter Tzippora. Jethro, of course, is not Jewish. For Moses, this is a latency period in which he flees his old identity but has not yet fully embraced a new one. Eventually, he will create a nascent Jewish identity from little more than the stories his mother told him of his Jewish beginnings. The culminating moment in developing his new Jewish identity comes from his vision of the Burning Bush and God’s voice declaring His existence.
Moses has lived his whole life on the inside as a Jew and the outside as an Egyptian. But as an Egyptian he is the ultimate outsider. And this is how we Jews live in the world (or at least in the Diaspora). We are hyphenated and live in two worlds. We are as American as the Americans, sometimes even more so (think the Gershwins writing White Christmas). Yet, we bear our alienness within. We are outsiders even while some of us are the ultimate insiders.
Yet, I doubt that many of us resolve the conflict as successfully as Moses did–by rejecting his Egyptian side and committing fully to his Jewish one and leading his people to liberation. Moses’ resolution of his conflict is not given to us who must continue to struggle with our dualness. But it gives us a transcendent vision to aspire to. Someplace we can call home. Our own private promised land.
Dan Siedarski at Jewschool quotes a long excerpt from a provocative essay, Divine Dissent, from a book by Ken Goffman and Dan Joy. The parallels and divergences from the life of Moses are interesting and instructive.
The essay paints Abraham as the first “countercultural rebel iconoclast.” He leads a comfortable life in Ur of the Chaldees, when God tells him to pack up and move on. But where to? God does not say:
Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.
Imagine you are Abraham (or Avrum) and that you have sunk down roots in this place called Ur. You know its ways. You speak the language. You know the people and you worship the gods that they do. Your father, Terah, is in fact an idolmaker. Then, suddenly you must throw it all up because of a some cockamamie voice telling you to do so. It is the voice of a single God, one never heard by any human before:
Abraham’s connection to his singular divinity came from listening (literally) to the individual voice in his head, which Abraham interpreted as the voice of God.
Have you ever heard of anything more ludicrous? Yet, something in Avrum makes the commitment, makes the radical break with his past toward the blind embrace of an unknown future. Like Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, it is the ultimate leap into the unknown. Imagine a man running off a cliff because an inner voice tells him to do so. Imagine the moment he leaves terra firma and steps into thin air. How brave…but more likely how utterly suicidal!
While Moses is born Jewish and Abraham born a “heathen,” they both have epiphanic moments when they must decide to turn aside from their known lives and break out for parts unknown. In a sense, all Jews since have had to do the same. Find a path through the world that allows them to traverse that alien culture while carrying within that deeper commitment to the thing that makes them special and apart–their Jewishness.