The Bible Says What? Moses was not as selfless as we think

The Bible Says What? Moses was not as selfless as we think

Rabbi Janet Burden takes a controversial topic from the Torah and applies a Liberal Jewish response

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law

One of the most poignant stories in the Torah is of Moses being told to go up to Mount Avarim to see the land given to the Israelites, but which he would not be allowed to enter.

His response to the situation is telling. He makes one request of God: “Appoint a man over the congregation… so they should not be like sheep who have no shepherd.” Traditionally, this is interpreted as an illustration of Moses’ selflessness. Even in this moment of great personal sadness, he seems to think only of the people.

The problem with that reading is that it simply doesn’t have the ring of emotional truth we so often find in Biblical narrative.

We have seen throughout the Exodus story that Moses is nothing if not supremely human, and subject to all our human foibles and frustrations. He tries to duck responsibility, makes mistakes, and he certainly gets angry. In fact, his anger led him to commit the sin at Meribah for which he is forbidden to enter the land.

It does not seem plausible that Moses’ reaction here is utterly selfless. He is, of course, concerned about the people, but he is also reacting to the loss of his role as leader of the people.

I can imagine that behind these words is also a hope that perhaps God will realise there isn’t another suitable leader. Perhaps God will relent and let Moses enter after all? The reader knows this cannot be, but we sympathise with Moses. Letting go of a role (and with it a way of being in the world) is so hard.

That is why the scene later on in which Moses symbolically transfers his authority by placing his hands upon Joshua is so powerful. May we always have the courage to assume leadership where it is wanting, and to relinquish it when the time comes. That is the mark of a true mensch.

  •  Rabbi Janet Burden serves Ealing Liberal Synagogue. She retires next year.
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