Ribera's 1638 representation of Moses

Moses is the key figure in Jewish history, described as the greatest of all the prophets. He was the person privileged to receive the Torah (Jewish Law) on Mt Sinai. According to Jewish tradition, he is the only human to have ‘seen’ G-d, in a dramatic encounter described in Exodus 33-34.

Moses the Man

Moses is born in difficult circumstances. His very survival is miraculous. The Children of Israel are enslaved in Egypt and a decree is issued that all baby boys are to be drowned in the River Nile. Moses’ mother and sister contrive to save him by first hiding his birth and then putting him into a basket that will float on the River. Moses’ sister, Miriam, watches as Pharoah’s daughter finds the basket and rescues the baby, eventually bringing him up as her own child.

The Biblical text does not explain whether Moses’ Jewish identity is hidden from Pharoah or how Moses himself comes to learn that he is a Jew, but when “he grew older” he “went down to his brothers and saw their burdens” (Exodus 2:11). From that moment onwards, Moses demonstrated the qualities of leadership that were to characterize him until he was 120 years old. The Biblical narrative from the Book of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy (4 of the 5 Books of the Torah) chronicles his life. It is the story of a remarkable human being, one not free of human flaws, but one nevertheless endowed with qualities that enable him to lead his people from slavery to the verge of independence in their Promised Land.

  • From the first moment he sees his people, he is moved by their plight. He acts impetuously and kills an Egyptian slavemaster who is beating a Jew. While this extra-judicial killing is not encouraged, it is seen as evidence of Moses’ passion for justice.
  • When he flees Egypt (as a result of the previous incident), he arrives at a place (Midian) where young men are bullying women at the well. He intervenes on behalf of the women, again demonstrating his intolerance of the abuse of power.
  • G-d appears to Moses in a “burning bush”, testing Moses’ faith. Moses understands that this is a miraculous sign and accepts, reluctantly, the role of leadership of the Jewish people. His humility is demonstrated in his first response that he is not capable of such a role; his bravery, in the fact that he does actually accept the challenge of taking on the might of Egypt.
  • Moses is criticized for not devoting enough time to his family as he takes on the challenge of confronting Pharoah. The theme of his failure to properly fulfil his family duties is repeated later in the text when he allows his wife to be slandered by his brother and sister. The Jewish people hold that even their greatest prophet and leader had human faults.
  • Moses leaves his family in Midian to return to Egypt, where he challenges Pharoah to do the right thing and free the slaves. He tries diplomacy, magic and then threats but ultimately, only Divine intervention can convince Pharoah that letting the slaves go is his only option.
  • The Jewish people participate in their final meal in Egypt, the Passover meal, where they defy the Egyptians bravely, putting their trust in Moses and, through him, in G-d. Moses succeeds in overcoming the slave mentality of the people and convinces them to embrace freedom.
  • At the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army behind them, the Jewish people begin to doubt the wisdom of leaving Egypt and complain. This is the first of many times that Moses is faced with near rebellion. Each time, he responds with a plea for Divine assistance and is able to quell the dissenters.
  • Moses holds his rod aloft to signify his faith that G-d will allow the Jewish people to be saved. His faith inspires the people, who cross the sea in safety. After the crossing, he leads the people in song, expressing his gratitude to G-d.
  • When Moses’ father-in-law recommends that he learn how to delegate leadership duties, he does so, divesting and sharing authority. This is another sign of the greatness of his leadership.
  • Moses receives the Torah on Mt Sinai on behalf of the Jewish people. When G-d speaks directly to the entire nation, they are unable to cope with the experience of the encounter with the Divine and beg Moses to meet G-d on their behalf. He spends 40 days and 40 nights in the presence of G-d but still does not feel that he has ‘met’ Him. Later on, as a result of his persistent requests, Moses is privileged to have G-d “pass in front of him”.
  • Moses puts up with constant challenges to his leadership. He never suggests that he has any particular virtues but maintains that his leadership role is the will of the Divine. He always describes and portrays himself as a servant or messenger of G-d.
  • At one point, when the people’s complaining against their situation overwhelms him, Moses strikes a rock instead of speaking to it, as G-d has commanded him to do. This impetuous act brings Divine retribution. He is prevented from fulfilling his dream of entering the Promised Land and instead dies alone on Mt Nevo, overlooking the Land.
  • Moses’ grave is outside the Land of Israel and in an unknown location. Jewish tradition holds that this is to prevent us turning his grave into a sacred site and turning him into a super-human figure. With all his great qualities and gifts, Moses was still human. He had an extraordinary ability to be ‘in tune’ with G-d and was able to transmit G-d’s will to the people. He was without a shred of arrogance and never lost his faith in G-d, even when he suffered from self-doubt.

Moses' Legacy – the Commandments of the Torah

According to Jewish tradition, not just the Ten Commandments but the entire Torah – the ‘Law of Moses’ – was given on Mt Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people, who were gathered at the base, having heard G-d speak, in awe of the spectacle of a mountain that was smoking and shaking because of the Diving presence there.

The ‘Five Books of Moses’ include narrative material beginning with the Creation and continuing until the arrival of the Jewish people in Israel after forty years in the desert. Interwoven with the narrative is the Divine law, which consists of 613 commandments covering such matters as principles of justice, complex provisions for the poor, loving-kindness in human relations, the legal obligations of rulers, rituals for repentance, the observance of festivals and much more.

The Ten Commandments, which can be literally translated from the Hebrew as the ‘Ten Pronouncements’, are a central feature, repeated twice. Proclaimed aloud by G-d to the entire people prior to Moses’ ascent, they are the foundational principles of the Judeo-Christian ethic. A shortened version:

  1. I am the L-rd, your G-d who took you out from the land of Egypt.
  2. You shall have no other gods before me.
  3. You shall not take the name of the L-rd, your G-d in vain.
  4. Remember the Shabbat day and keep it holy.
  5. Honour your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
  10. You shall not covet (want) what your neighbour has.

Before G-d pronounced his laws, Moses was instructed by Him to ask the Jewish people if they were prepared to accept the responsibility of fulfilling them. The people unanimously agreed to accept the laws and G-d promised them that thus they would become “a nation of priests”.

© Peta Jones Pellach 2006

Note: This author prefers ‘G-d’ as a reference to the Deity, in order to avoid the possibility that a print-out might be destroyed, which could be regarded as sacreligious.

A typical Midrash about Moses

See The Literature of Judaism for a detailed explanation of the concept of ‘Midrash’.

A Midrash tells us that during the seven days when Moses was at the burning bush, each day he pleaded with G-d to send someone else as the representative of the Jewish people. In the end of the Midrash, God informs Moses that because of his unwillingness to take on the task during those seven days he will not be permitted to ascend to the priesthood. Rather, it is Aaron (Moses’ elder brother) and Aaron’s descendants who will become the priests. However for seven days, when the Tabernacle is dedicated, Moses will be allowed to perform the priestly functions, but not after that.

Moses’ reaction to what might be perceived as a punishment is to rejoice over the good fortune of his brother Aaron. After all, Midrash tells us, one reason why Moses is reluctant to take on the leadership role is that he is afraid that Aaron will be jealous that his younger brother is the leader of the people. However, G-d informs him that Aaron will rejoice at seeing Moses and hearing that he is to lead the mission to Pharaoh, and indeed he does. For this Aaron is rewarded: let “that same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother [have] precious stones (the priestly breastplate) set upon it.”

And so Aaron rejoices at G-d’s choice of Moses as leader and Moses then rejoices at the choice of Aaron as high priest, even though the Midrash portrays this as Moses’ punishment for not being eager to go on G-d’s mission.

Nevertheless, when Moses is given the instructions on how to build the Tabernacle another Midrash says that he tells G-d he is ready and able to serve as priest. How can this be so if had been informed at the burning bush that Aaron was to serve as priest and if Moses himself had actually rejoiced over this? We all know of times in our lives when we ‘conveniently’ forget something and then are stunned when we later ‘discover’ it. When Moses ‘learns’ that Aaron is to become priest and that he and his sons are to be ‘demoted’ to the status of mere Levites (helpers to the priests) he does not react negatively. Rather, he rejoices, just as Aaron rejoiced in Moses’ choice earlier on.

The choice of Aaron, the elder brother, as priest now means that the rejection of the elder in favor of the younger that runs through the entire book of Bereshit/Genesis has now been ‘set right’. Moses, the younger, may indeed be the leader, but his sons not only do not inherit his position, they are all but forgotten in our narrative. It is Aaron, the elder, who is given the religious leadership position that will then be inherited by his sons.

The rejection of Moses and his sons and the reversal of the ancient patterns could easily be viewed by Moses with anger or disdain. And yet it is not. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is one that involves both loss and gain for each brother while at the same time involving altruistic love of each brother for the other that is symbolized by their reactions when the other is chosen.

In the Torah we are told that Moses’ primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed ‘kohen gadol’ (literally, ‘great priest’) Moses’ humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject G-d’s initial call for fear that Aaron would be hurt.

This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the Tabernacle and instruct others to prepare Aaron’s garments. In this way the “and as for you” is not viewed as further punishment for Moses’ initial reticence (i.e., G-d saying “And as for you if you’re going to hesitate to follow my orders not only am I going to take away the priesthood, but I am going to make you prepare everything for your brother the priest and then let you serve as priest for seven days only so you can then hand the duties over to him!”)

Instead, it becomes an acknowledgement of Moses’ humility and his ability to rejoice for his brother, read as, “And as for you, you have shown your greatness through your humility and your concern for your brother, and so you shall have the pleasure of preparing all that he needs to begin his priestly service, including dedicating the sanctuary that is then to be his domain from then on.”

(Adapted by Avril Alba from www2.jrf.org/recon-dt/dt.php?id=73).