Moshe and Og, Both Human

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Seeing the Positive

Moshe Rabbenu seems of two minds about the Jewish people in Devarim 1;9-13. He reminds them he had told them he could not lead them on his own, Hashem had made them many, implying too many. It reads like a complaint (and Rashi took it that way), it was too hard for him, maybe for anyone.

He pivots in verse eleven, blesses them Hashem should increase them further, the next verse returning to apparent lament, bewailing his inability to alone bear torchachem, u-masa’achem ve-rivchem, your load, burden, and strife.

In verse thirteen, he tells them (and us) he had therefore set up (on the advice of his father in law, not mentioned here) a pyramid of sub-leaders, officers of ten, fifty, a hundred, and a thousand [a system I think would solve many election problems in modern-day democracies, as I tried to lay out in my most recent novel, The Making of the Messiah, 2048].

Rashi, for contrast, thought the challenge lay in how Hashem holds Jewish judges accountable for any errors they make, as well as the Jews’ intently negative view of Moshe. Meshech Hochmah adopts a sunnier perspective.

Abundance brings challenges, such as the needed arrangements to care for a large healthy family when there is plenty of money. The head of the family will need to hire nursemaids, governesses, housekeepers, and more. For Meshech Hochmah, Moshe was pointing out all the work it took for him to organize the care of the nation Hashem had blessed so richly. Like a father, Moshe had to find /hire more people to attend to all the needs.

Throughout the Generations

An odd word in verse nine told Meshech Hochmah the ideal was for this to be true throughout history. When Moshe says he had told the people he could not lead them alone, the last word in the verse is lemor, usually used when one speaker delivers a message to be relayed to someone else, like when Hashem tells Moshe lemor, to pass on to the Jewish people. Lemor here expressed Moshe’s hope all Jewish leaders would need to also address all the many needs of a nation too blessed to be handled by just one person.

Especially during the Nine Days, I am happy to be able to share such a positive outlook on Moshe’s view of the people.

Who Can’t Fight Whom

Moving to chapter two, Moshe reminded the people they had passed Edom/Esav then Moav on their final approach to Israel. Hashem had commanded Moshe to warn the people not to go to war with Edom, verses 4-5, where in verse nine, Hashem just said it to Moshe [presumably to tell them, too, but the Edom verses are explicit that he should speak to the people, where the Moav verse says only that Hashem told Moshe not to wage war].

Meshech Hochmah attributes the difference to an idea found in Baba Batra 122b, tradition had it only the tribe of Yosef could defeat Esav (based on Ovadyah 1;18). Moshe would never have gone to war with them, because he knew he would be doomed to defeat. The people had to be restrained, because they could have relied on Efraim and Menashe, descendants of Yosef. With Moav, the warning included Moshe, who also could have thought he would win.

I have no problem with the textual insight, his noticing the difference in whom Hashem addresses, but his answer assumes one of two surprising premises. Possibly, Hashem worried the people would go to war without Moshe, which seems to mean that at this late stage of Moshe’s career, the people would readily go to war without consulting him.

I think it more likely he meant Moshe could have recused himself, could have told the people can’t go to war on Esav (maybe because then it would be an official war of the Jewish nation, and that cannot win). Hashem was informing him it wasn’t enough, right then none of them was allowed to war with Esav. Even so, Meshech Hochmah is seeing a divide, the possibility parts of the people would break off from Moshe’s leadership and act on their own, with or without Moshe’s consent. The leader’s grip on the nation seems looser than I would have thought.

[He also does not comment on why only Yosef’s descendants could defeat Esav, nor on the prohibition for Moav ruled out causing them any trouble, where the Edom verse rule out only war.]

Nature Has More Possibilities Than We Imagine

The Jews were permitted to go to war in chapter three, where Moshe recalls their defeat of Og, the king of Bashan. The Torah pauses to tell us only Og was left of the Refa’im, 3;11, his bed of iron in Rabbah of Ammon, nine by four cubits be-amat ish, the cubits of a man.

To explain the digression, Meshech Hochmah asserts people of yore turned any remarkable human beings into gods (God forbid), worshipped any of their possessions that reflected their greatness [as if we bowed and prayed to Usain Bolt’s sneakers or Mariusz Pudzianowski’s gloves]. He adds we know they did this from Greek poetry, a little Torah u-Madda moment.

Og fit the model, his size and lifespan reasons to be sure he was superhuman, literally. His bed, evidence of his size, became an object of worship. The verse says halo hi, behold she (the bed) is in Rabbah, for us to know it was a pilgrimage item, people coming from afar to see (and worship) it.

Since no human could be so large, he had to be a god, everyone was sure. Moshe wanted the Jews to remember he was just a man, the last surviving member of the Refa’im, his bed very large but measured be-amat ish, still within the human realm. It is a point I think relevant today, that we can dismiss some natural event as impossible, and then be shocked by its occurrence.

If we are sure nature could not produce an Og, we may interpret his existence in ways counter to the Torah; Meshech Hochmah hears a reminder and warning Nature has more potential than we know, can show us what we have never seen before, and we should not be fooled into deciding it is supernatural. (He recommends we see Rambam to Mishnah Niddah 3 for another example; I think he meant the second mishnah, where Rambam accepts the possibility a woman could miscarry a fetus with an animal’s body and a human face.)

[He was focused on people not deciding these events showed some power other than God, certainly one important point. I think it includes the flip side, we must not be overconfident of our knowledge, to the point we are sure of how the world will look in ten, twenty, or fifty years. We are supposed to always remember the range of nature is wider than we might accept, especially if we merit positive interventions by God.]

The leader Moshe was clearly human enough he could not do it all on his own, certainly not wage war on Edom, and perhaps required a special effort to avert the people going to war without him. Og was superficially more remarkable, carrying the danger of people being sure he could not be natural. Reminders to us to find and follow the kinds of leaders who will address all our needs in the right ways, without tipping us over into religious error.

About Gidon Rothstein

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