Moshe, Success or Failure?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat BeHa’alotecha

Moshe’s Extraordinary Comfort

In the course of the rebuke to Miriam and Aharon for their slander of their brother, Hashem declares Moshe to be be-chol beiti ne’eman, the most faithful (or trusted) in all My house, 12;7. R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg accepts the general view, the phrase means Moshe was like a trusted friend, could speak with God at any time, evidenced earlier in the parsha, 9;8. Back there, Jews unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice had wondered whether there was a way to be included, Moshe said imdu ve-eshma’ah, stand and I’ll hear, showing his confidence he would receive an answer immediately.

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah wonders in what house is Moshe the most trusted? Before he gets to the words, he says Hashem was stressing how unusually ready Moshe was for prophecy as a matter of his physical self. For all other prophets, the experience could only be had by leaving/separating from one’s body, such as in sleep, or with some kind of fearsome experience leading to a trance, such as with Avraham at the Berit bein HaBetarim, or as Daniel describes, 10;8, all his strength leaving him.

Moshe Rabbenu had his visions awake, his physical self pure enough to present none of the usual problems for contact with the Divine. As the verse says, for him, prophecy was like a conversation with another person, no bodily evidence of anything out of the ordinary.

Back to the Words: Most What in the What

The ne’eman, steadfast or faithful, refers to his ability to stand in the face of divine input, like a yated ne’eman, a tent-peg that can withhold all pulls against it. For beiti, My house, R. Mecklenburg offers the idea of a house of wisdom (with scriptural support), and it is called a house because it is internal to the person.

Put together, the phrase means, “Moshe is steadfast in his ability to absorb all the types of wisdom in the house of wisdom with no ill physical effects, because all his physicality is perfected and purified to the point they can join the reception of divine wisdom.”

R. Mecklenburg somewhat sounds like Moshe purified his physical self, worked to attain this level, where I think most of his predecessors thought Moshe was born that way. He doesn’t say it directly, though, so I’ll leave it for now. All agree Moshe was extraordinary, with a unique ability to prophesy while conscious and comfortable.

R. Hirsch Excuses the People, Sees Insecurity in Moshe

Bamidbar 11;4 tells the story of the people’s complaining about lack of meat, instigated by the asafsuf, the riffraff. In verse ten, Moshe hears them voicing their travails le-mishpechotav, by families. Rashi (I remind us, for contrast) says they gathered in families to make their complaint more public; families were the natural way to muster groups of people and have a public protest. R. Hirsch instead asserts [without textual evidence I could spot, other than perhaps the idea that families are usually more private than public, as Rashi had it] the people specifically did not mass large groups to register their concerns, they cried in homes and families, except they did stand in their doorways, meaning others could hear, too, including Moshe.

To double down on his [to me, unconvincing] reading [since, if they didn’t plan to make a public fuss of their issues, why do it in their doorways?], when the verse comments this was “bad in Moshe’s eyes,” R. Hirsch sources the upset to Moshe’s sense of failure, his feeling he should have already inculcated a fuller, better view of life’s goals, one where crying over a lack of melons, onions, and more would no longer be part of their profile.

Moshe brings the problem to God, in the next verse, questions Hashem’s unfairness to him, a line I always thought was a matter of having been saddled with an ungrateful, disobedient people. R. Hirsch instead continues his theme of feelings of failure and inadequacy. He thinks lamah hare’ota, why have You done evil, refers back to the scene at the burning bush, where Moshe insisted he was unfit for the job. Now, he’s proved it, and is upset about having been put in this position.

According to R. Hirsch, a fine example of what I have noticed more than once, his always giving creative readings, interesting ones, not always convincingly grounded in the text.

Moshe’s Failed Recruitment of His Father In Law

The Jews are about to leave Sinai, and Yitro decides to go back to Midian, despite having converted to Judaism, a view of Ramban’s that Malbim adopted [Ramban seems to mean a full conversion, says the name Chovav in our verse was the new conversion name. If so, it seems to me extremely odd he would leave the only Jewish community in the world. I could have imagined he converted to monotheism, enough to count as conversion and love of Torah—Chazal’s reading of the name Chovav.]

Moshe argues he should stay. Lest Yitro fear the upcoming wars, Moshe reminds him they are going to the Land God promised them, and would not need wars. Without that problem, Yitro should come and enjoy the bounty Hashem will give them.

A step too far, Malbim thinks. Yitro had absorbed the importance of doing good deeds for their own sake, not the reward that will accrue. When Moshe phrased it in terms of reaping benefits, he was more confident he should not go with them, should go back home and convert his nation of origin. [I again think he must mean to monotheism and Noahide law observance; either way, we do not hear of any groundswell of monotheism among Midianites. If Malbim has this conversation right, Yitro failed to achieve his goal].

A mixed bag for Moshe: able to interact easily with the divine, success that did not translate into his interactions with the people, for R. Hirsch, nor to keep Yitro from leaving. Its often easier to perfect ourselves (or be perfected) than sway others.

About Gidon Rothstein

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