Posts Tagged ‘faith’
So it turns out the families of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach knew almost from the beginning of this ordeal that one or two of the three boys were likely to have been killed in the course of the kidnapping on June 12.
There were gunshots on the recording of the SOS call made by Gilad, which was played for the families. There were bullet casings and blood found in the burnt shell of the getaway car, and the families were told this too.
They were told that the lack of demands from the kidnappers was a sign that the boys might no longer be alive.
And yet all three families exuded optimism, faith, and positive energy for eighteen long days. They went before camera and after camera, reporter after reporter, concert after concert, prayer assembly after prayer assembly, and asserted their confidence that just a bit more effort could bring a positive result.
They met every youth group, every foreign diplomat, every UN assembly, every IDF commander they could, thanking everybody for their efforts in their upbeat, affirming and unassuming way.
What amazing people! What noble people! How they raised the spirits of an entire nation; united an entire nation; comforted an entire nation.
They taught us how to harness all our temporal powers to drive toward a national goal in unison. They taught us all what it means to believe in powers greater than our own.
Perhaps the most profound thought uttered over the past three weeks was expressed by Racheli Frankel at the Western Wall. In a clip shown on Israeli television, and seen I think by just about every person in the country, Mrs. Frankel is approached at the Wall by a group of very young girls who want to wish her well.
Instead, Mrs. Frankel bends down to them and offers theological reassurance and warm wisdom.
“I want you to promise me,” she softly says, “that no matter what happens, you won’t be crushed or broken. That you won’t lose faith. After all, we must remember that God isn’t our ‘employee.’ He doesn’t always do as we wish.”
With these crushingly humble words, Racheli Frankel captured the hearts of an entire nation. Her words resounded through every living room and every workplace. People repeated them, reflected upon them, debated them.
Agree or disagree, nobody could deny her strength of spirit. Nobody could avoid being awestruck at her clear-sightedness; at her breathtaking display of faith within realism.
Naftali’s uncle Yishai Frankel shared with me that behind the mask of embarrassed smiles and sunny demeanor we saw on our television screens, Racheli Frankel was being torn apart:
“Inside the house, she doesn’t smile. Inside the house, inside her soul, she is dealing with a great personal burden of pain. And of course, she must simultaneously be mother to her other children. She may be a superwoman, but she has no supernatural powers. She says that she draws strength from the people of Israel; from the outpouring of care and prayer that has come from all corners of the Jewish world.”
Such modesty aside, I feel that Mrs. Frankel and the other five bereaved parents modeled for us not just indomitable personal character. They modeled for us spiritual strength; a healthy blend of religious devotion and rationality. Of this-worldness and other-worldness. Of pragmatism and values. Of self-interest and selflessness. Of coolly calculated tactics and naturally-flowing love.
They gave Israelis a model for religious commitment, national unity, and brotherly love not only for times of crisis but also for everyday life, throughout all regular seasons of our rough-and-tumble spiritual-social-political life.
I would guarantee that there wasn’t a Jew in Israel eight years ago, including the most leftist, cynical and secularist, who didn’t, even if for just one moment, think to himself that Arik Sharon was being punished by God for the crime of the Gush Katif expulsion.
Whether they afterwards denied or ignored it is irrelevant. For an instant, every Jew in Israel understood Sharon’s debilitating stroke as a sign from the universe.
That’s the problem with miracles and signs, and why we Jews don’t use signs as foundations of our faith: they’re fleeting.
Last Shabbat’s parshah–Beshalach–is full of stories of massive, yet ephemeral miracles. We learn how Bnei Yisrael would experience a miracle, and then simply ignore it a few days later, or worse, experience miracles everyday (like the manna) and regard them as commonplace.
It would seem that the purpose of miracles is not to create blind faith, because it fails miserably in that direction, but to serve as a teaching moment, and occasionally for a course correction.
The manna taught Bnei Yisrael about keeping Shabbat and about trusting in God to provide our “daily bread.” The tearing of Yam Suf helped Bnei Yisrael take their first steps away from fear and servitude under the Egyptians and toward trusting in and serving God.
At the end of the Parsha, Amalek attacks Bnei Yisrael, and we see the miraculous and inexplicable interaction between Moshe’s raised hands and the battle with Amalek. The Parsha ends with Joshua “weakening” Amalek, and us, the Jews, being commanded to wipe out any memory of Amalek from the face of the Earth.
Why was Amalek the first to attack Israel after all the miracles and Egypt’s destruction?
Because Amalek is the antithesis of Israel.
Amalek doesn’t believe in divine providence or divine intervention. Amalek believes in coincidence (“Kerry” in Hebrew). They attacked Israel to prove the ideology of a universe with no direction, judge or justice, where all events are random and hence where morality is inconceivable. The only morality of that ideology is the survival of the strongest. There are no values other than those of the people in charge.
And their kerry-coincidence approach to reality constitutes a very strong belief, which is why Joshua, despite his victory, was only able to weaken it, and why it is something we must continue to fight in every generation.
It is only our trust in God, our belief in Divine intervention, that will allow us to win the latest round of this ongoing war against the ideology of coincidence.
John Kerry said about Sharon, “He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.”
He wants Netanyahu to forget that Sharon failed miserably in his pursuit of both peace and security. His mad retreat from Gaza, deporting thousands of Jews, destroying homes, synagogues, fields, equipment, resulted in a lot more bloodshed and destruction than ever before. How can anyone look at Sharon’s abysmal record in Gaza and say they would like to repeat it, but this time make it five times or ten times more terrible?
Our modern day prophet of kerry–aptly named Mr. Kerry–wants Netanyahu to forget about God’s guiding hand in Jewish history, and the retribution that befell the late Ariel Sharon.
It’s no coincidence that Sharon died this week, when it appears that Israel is under dire threats, and fateful decisions lie in the hands of one man who must now choose to have faith in the God of our history, or in the man of coincidence and happenstance.
Netanyahu is our Joshua, and we must be his Moshe, holding up our hands to strengthen him, and to remind him of the One who fights our battles, the true source of our strength, victory and survival.
Originally published at Sultan Knish.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin said that the storm was divine punishment for “being in Iraq under false pretenses.”
Not only was a Liberal deity taking a position on WMDs and punishing George W. Bush by evicting a lot of black people from their homes; but the Democratic divinity was paradoxically also committed to progressive housing policies.”This city will be a majority-African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be,” Nagin promised.Bush is out of office. America is no longer in Iraq. And Democrats have been forced to search for new theological explanations for hurricanes, typhoons and volcanoes.
In response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan; the green prophets of the left are prophesying that their liberal deity is angry over capitalism and industrialization.
“Whenever Mother Nature wants to send an urgent message to humankind, it sends it via the Philippines. This year the messenger was Haiyan,” The Nation wrote.
The message was apparently that Mother Nature, not to be confused with the nice elderly lady who runs a blog about alternative medicines, really hates prefabricated housing.
“That it was climate change creating the super typhoons that were taking weird directions was a message from Nature not just to Filipinos but to the whole world,” The left-wing magazine claimed.
For those infidels questioning whether Nature (capital N) was really speaking through a struggling lefty publication begging readers for money to pay its postal bills, its expert on typhoon theology had an answer.
“Is it a coincidence, ask some people who are not exactly religious, that both Pablo and Yolanda arrived at the time of the global climate negotiations?”
It is of course the very definition of religious faith to assume that a bearded woman in the sky is sending storms to threaten global climate negotiators (while missing them by two hemispheres and 6,000 miles). A more cynical person might suspect that climate negotiations are arranged around storm season for maximum effect.
The Nation, which regularly condemns “Bible Thumping”, had switched over to “Whole-Earth-Catalog Thumping”; building a religion around a Mother Nature who communicated her wishes through hurricanes and bankrupt liberal magazines.
Pacific Islanders used to believe that volcanic eruptions were angry notes from their volcano gods. The Yaohnanen tribe in Vanuatu on contact with civilization modernized their beliefs, and after encountering a younger Prince Philip decided that he had come from the volcano and that they ought to worship him.
And so the Prince Philip Movement was born. The islanders are modest in their requests of their god. “If he can’t come perhaps he could send us something,” the Yaohnanen Chief suggested, “a Land Rover, bags of rice or a little money.”
The Philippians may seem absurd, but their religion actually took a step forward from worshiping a volcano, which did nothing constructive and just destroyed things leaving the tribesmen to wonder whether the volcano was angry at their unjustified presence in Iraq or the waste carbon emitted by their cooking fires, to worshiping the Duke of Edinburgh, who can do constructive things like send them autographed photos. And perhaps one day a Land Rover.
While the savage tribesmen were approaching the margins of civilization; Prince Philip’s son was reverting to savagery and blaming everything wrong with the world, from local weather to the Syrian Civil War, on the great volcano god of Global Warming.
After some winter storms, Prince Charles announced that, “severe weather conditions in our country are, I have no doubt, the consequences of man-kind’s arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of nature.” It was the sort of statement that would have been commonplace a century ago. The only thing missing was that “Nature” had replaced “God”.The Yaohnanen tribe had moved on from worshiping a volcano god only capable of destruction; but the son of the living god they worshiped seemed eager to find a volcano god to worship. The savages were trying to become civilized, while civilized men were trying to become savages.At the Washington Post, the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, gathered the tattered remains of her religion around herself and argued that Typhoon Haiyan was caused by human sin and needed to be atoned for by “confessing” that human beings cause typhoons.
But then Thistlethwaite, displaying less faith in whatever god she believed in than Ray Nagin had in his Chocolate City divinity and The Nation in its typhoon-hurling Mother Nature, added that “These “superstorms” aren’t an “act of God,” but an act of willful disregard for God’s creation.”
That is to say, God is dead. Instead Republicans must confess to the liberal theologians who speak for the superstorms, that they were the ones who made the winds blow. And if they don’t, then the speakers-to-superstorms will also hold them responsible for the next hurricane.
What miracle is the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s faith in superstorms founded on? Like the storms themselves, it’s a bit circular. “The fact that we are having to invent new language to describe such massively destructive storms, like “Super Typhoon Haiyan” or “Superstorm Sandy” suggests we need to take a different look at such violent storms today and theologically assess the human responsibility for them.”
Using the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s reasoning, the fact that we have a word for Superman suggests that we need to seriously investigate whether there are superhuman beings among us who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But worshipers of the liberal God of Global Warming who hates the War in Iraq, white people living in New Orleans and carbon have a looser relationship with facts than Pacific Islander tribes.
The term Superstorm isn’t new. And neither are superstorms. In a listing of storms from 1932 onward, the first one shows up in 1940.
Back at the UN Climate Change summit, which apparently incites Mother Nature to spout off typhoons like soda bubbles, the representative for the Philippines, Naderev “Yeb” Sano, threw a tantrum and demanded that Global Warming skeptics visit the islands to see the devastation.
Then he announced that he was going on a hunger strike until something meaningful was done.
In 1991, Tropical Storm Thelma killed over 5,000 people in the Philippines.The President of the Philippines has estimated that the death toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan will be less than half that
Before Christianity and Islam, people in the Philippines believed that storms were brought by Saraganka Bagyo, the God of Storms, or Galurâ, a giant eagle who brings storms. Another story has it that they originated from a dispute between the descendants of the sea god and the sky god. Now Carbon has become the new Storm God, bringing bad weather because people won’t do anything meaningful, like cripple their economies and destroy their standards of living to appease him.
Sano, like Prince Charles and Ray Nagin, is reverting to a paganism buttressed by a science so bad that it is indistinguishable from superstition and magical thinking.
Despite the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s faith in a superstorm apocalypse derived from spending too
too much time watching the Weather Channel, there is no actual pattern of increased storm activity. Nor is Mother Nature targeting UN climate negotiations with typhoons. The only pattern here is the one that a liberal religion that believes in little except human evil assigns to storm patterns.
If the God of Global Warming worshiped by The Nation and the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite seems senselessly malicious, it is because it exists in their minds as a reflection of human evil. The left proclaimed the death of God only to find themselves in need of some entity to inflict ruthless punishment on those who did not believe in their left-handed path; which in the absence of the Gulags they were no longer able to do.
Liberalism in act of idolatry built the God of Global Warming in its own image. Like liberals, their deity can destroy, but not create.
The God of Global Warming is the embodiment of liberalism and holds all the politically correct beliefs while carrying out brutal atrocities in the name of the left’s favorite political causes. With a moral logic as flawed as that of its worshipers, it is a deity that kills people in the Philippines for the carbon crimes of Americans and kills people in New Orleans because Bush bombed Iraq.Science only truly began to take off when scientists stopped trying to base it around their preconceived worldviews of how things should be, but began to actually draw conclusions from the data, instead of fitting the data into their conclusions.The human race did not suddenly become much smarter in the last few centuries. Instead our greatest minds learned a little humility and began getting out of the way of the data. Instead of trying to force reality to conform to their philosophy, they experimented with building a philosophy around reality. The left has killed reality-based science, along with so many other human accomplishments.
Global Warming is the worship of the left. It elevates its petty biases against industry and the middle class to the status of a religion. It insists on their right to act as the mediators between individuals and the economy or else the God of Global Warming will unleash her superstorms on the bourgeois infidels.
Our tears have yet to dry. I am not sure they ever will. We have all been thrown to the ground, pinned down by a loss of spiritual support.
Why is this so? It is because Maran HaRav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, was larger than our generation. Or perhaps the generation is too shrunken, too beaten by the wind, to fully appreciate Maran’s greatness. It is still unclear.
One thing is clear. For the Sephardic Jew, this century is divided into two distinct periods – one with Maran’s presence and one that is no longer graced by it. The second period trembles with its own uncertainty because the greatest and strongest of us are incapable of filling the shoes of Maran, who served as posek and leader in an era rife with instability and danger.
Throughout the week of mourning, people spoke of our being orphaned. We feel a deep, unfathomable loss. With all our modern skills and technological know-how, we have yet to develop the device that can measure Maran’s monumental contributions to us, to our generation, and to many generations to follow.
It is not in our power to describe, so soon after his passing, the greatness of such a Torah giant. People will write about his amazing Torah knowledge, the power of his prayers and his outstanding acts of chesed, those he made public and those he hid from the public’s eye. But we will never know, certainly not in the near future, the true extent of Maran’s influence on the history of the Jewish people, how much he shaped the direction of the state of Israel, and how he gave countless Sephardic Jews a different perception of themselves. We are still feeling the effects of his efforts; perhaps we are still at the very beginning.
* * * * *
Maran was the standard-bearer of the movement to restore Sephardic Jewry to its former status in the hierarchy of Torah greatness. Five or six decades ago, Porat Yosef was basically the only higher yeshiva for Sephardic young men. The roshei yeshiva perceived the enormous potential in Maran when he was still a youngster. They did everything to equip him with the tools to realize their vision and bring their hopes to fruition. They placed their hopes in him to return the lost members of our people to the flock by igniting the spark of faith and pride in their hearts.
Maran’s heart was fertile soil for planting the seeds of a revolution among Sephardic Jewry. Even as a youth, his power to pluck lost souls from the depths and carry them on his wings was apparent. Already then, children ran to find places in synagogues and batei midrash with his encouragement.
If the streets of Yerushalayim could eulogize him, they would recount how he gathered the children in all the synagogues, large and small. They would tell how he strode from Musayoff to Geulah and to Beit Yisrael, offering yet another lesson in practical halacha, another page of Gemara, another study in the weekly Torah reading. Every lesson was delivered with his special grace and humor, with a smile and with wit. His lectures were attended by nine-year-old children and ninety-year-old codgers, sharp-minded kollel students and simple laborers after a long day of work.
Yes, this is the way it was long before the politics began, before there was an issue of appointing people to positions, status and jobs. Maran was tilling the ground so that he could sow the seeds of faith – not only in Yerushalayim but in Beersheva, Ashdod, Dimona, Tel Aviv, Tirat HaCarmel, Haifa, Acre and Nahariya. He took it to little settlements and forgotten communities. He never told anyone “No, I don’t have time for you.”
Maran planted the trees of Torah so that their branches would cast the shadow of emunah and yirat Shamayim on the new generation. At the same time that atheistic Mapai activists danced over their success in pulling Sephardic Jews away from their faith, Maran was already laying the groundwork for the counter-revolution to bring them back home. He counted his successes one person at a time. He found them in urban centers and in Zionist establishments, simple people and influential people alike.
How did he do it? Primarily, through the power of his personal Torah study. The energy he put into learning Torah was something unmatched in this generation and, apparently, going back several generations as well. Further, he did it through his sincere, faith-filled prayers that undoubtedly pierced the highest Heavens. His prayers were accentuated by his tears, flowing freely and silently in the hope his wounded brethren would be healed spiritually, step by step until they achieved perfect health.
It would not be right to describe Maran’s public service as beginning with his establishment of the Shas political party. With due respect to Shas and its accomplishments, it was Maran who prepared for it with decades of hard work. He breathed life into the movement; he pushed and encouraged the young men he appointed to fight the battles, instilling courage and confidence where none had existed before. “You can do it,” he said. “It is within reach. We are not powerless.”
“Open more yeshivas and institutions,” he would insist. “Don’t worry. Hashem will help. You won’t run out of money.” He implanted solid faith in his people, telling them Heaven’s help was right around the corner. From his lofty position he brought the horn of plenty to the Torah world, to all who were in need and to all who hungered for Torah. All we had to do was to come, to participate, to reach forward. The blessings of the gadol hador were available. He had envisioned it and sowed the seeds for it more than sixty years earlier. We are witness to his revolution today.
* * * * *
It is crucial for us to emphasize that Maran not only created a monumental edifice of Torah and halacha, but that he also built people. He was there for the youth, for families, for one Jew after the other. He gave people advice they needed in making important decisions in life. He gave his blessings. Maran was the key in helping them to connect with Hashem.
His home was always open, as was his sensitive heart. He was always ready to listen to barren women, widows, orphans, the ill and downtrodden. Whoever they were, he served as their loving father. He was everyone’s father. When he pinched or slapped someone’s cheek, that person knew that it came from his father. Everyone knew that he loved us all, that he prayed sincerely for us all.
It was such a wonderful feeling to know we had a father who was so wise, who possessed such yirat Shamayim, who was no doubt beloved by Hashem. This feeling gave us strength and spirit. When someone left Maran’s presence, he invariably was stronger than before and committed to building himself anew with Torah and emunah. The future appeared rosier because his father had blessed him and encouraged him.
For me personally, Maran was my guide in life, my leader, my authority. Now I feel I have lost my father. The pain is far greater than when I lost my biological father.
* * * * *
Maran, we were privileged to stand by you for decades. We saw your self-sacrifice and stupendous efforts to raise the Sephardic world of Torah. How can we describe it?
There is a type of pride that is proper and a type that is despicable. It is wonderful when a Jew feels pride for going in the ways of Hashem. With his inimitable wisdom, Maran did his best to raise the honor of Sephardic halachic rulings so that we could be proud to know them and follow them. He showed us that we had no reason to feel ashamed of our heritage, that we could be proud to follow the rulings of Maran HaRav Yosef Karo, author of the Shluchan Aruch.
Thanks to the work of Maran, we have a clear understanding of the ways of halacha, and thousands of Torah students have adopted them with pride and confidence.
During Maran’s lifetime, our bookshelves became filled with sefarim of halacha and responsa. Once, the Sephardic yeshiva world was silent. No more. It is a world that has been completely rebuilt, replete with roshei yeshiva, teachers, rabbinical judges and rabbis who are fluent in the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and the Acharonim. Before Maran, we lacked all this.
Sephardic pride. It is not just an expression; it is an anchor for values and sentiment. For decades, Sephardic Jews were downtrodden and scorned. They did not receive the recognition they deserved. People did not understand the greatness of their own halachic traditions. Maran expertly guided us out of that quagmire. He brought an entire generation of Torah scholars to hold fast to the wisdom of Sephardic Jewry, the wisdom of generations of great scholars who built themselves on the Shulchan Aruch and Rav Yosef Karo.
* * * * *
Today we are confused, bewildered about our future. Our ship has been cast astray and we don’t know where it is headed. Despite this, let us remember how Maran, our leader, always remained confident about the future. He was a born optimist. He knew he was doing the right thing and he always told us to remain on course while seeking to enhance Hashem’s honor.
We are incapable of telling the future. And even though Maran has been taken from us, we must have full faith that Hashem will continue to provide us with the proper leaders. We will continue to follow leaders who will go in the ways of Maran, the spiritual giant who built Sephardic Jewry, placed the crown of Torah on our heads and taught us to love and cherish that Torah.
We pray that we will continue on the road for the sake of our children and grandchildren until we will be privileged to see our Final Redemption.
Davening – praying – may not top physicians’ prescribed regimens for boosting health, but it benefits both mind and body beyond the spiritual elevation that comes with it.
Davening provides mental stimulation that helps keep the brain healthy, as an active mind has less chance of memory loss over time. With prayer services of substantial length, davening requires focus, concentration, discipline, and proper articulation, not only to get through the prayers and passages but to finish them on time, since in a minyan you’re praying together with others.
It could be argued that with the repetition of the same prayers week after week, year after year, the congregant is more or less able to daven by rote. That may be true, but there are a lot of words to recall, so even when the prayers are recited by rote, the mind is still stimulated. Indeed, whether one davens from memory or finds new challenges with each recitation, davening, for those of us who do so regularly, is like a daily mental workout.
If Hebrew is not your native language or one in which you are fluent, carrying out this endeavor has additional mental benefits; the recitation is even more challenging and therefore provides a better workout for the brain.
Davening is not a sedentary act; there are specific motions that accompany particular passages. During the course of the service the davener stands, sits, stands, bows, straightens up, turns, takes steps backward and forward, sits, stands, sits, stands, bows, and so forth. It’s not running, it’s not bench pressing, it’s not a high-energy workout, but it’s movement – and that can only be counted as positive.
For some people, particularly the elderly, davening may be one of the few forms of exercise they get. Done multiple times daily or weekly, it contributes to the minimum daily exercise recommended by various health authorities to increase longevity.
There are ancillary benefits that may be associated with davening. How does the davener get to synagogue? Walking is, of course, always healthy, particularly at a brisk pace. Davening at shul is a communal activity, and the camaraderie can lead to higher self-esteem and well-being and thus to better mental health. Singing prayers as part of a group can have similar benefits.
Some who daven are able to read or recite the Hebrew in the siddur but don’t know what the words mean. It behooves the davener to be able to translate the words properly in order to get the full benefit of davening. This provides further mental stimulation.
Because the text has so many layers of meaning, even the seasoned davener who understands what is being recited may discover new interpretations or challenges, which also helps keep the mind active.
Of course, correlations have been made between faith and well-being, and some elderly people have attributed their long lifespan to their faith. So these are benefits on top of the act of davening itself.
Davening can be a conduit to a sharp mind and a limber body. For religious fulfillment and mental and physical stimulation, it is a win-win practice. It’s never too late to start davening your way to good health.
“That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people …For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 48-50, 52).
These words draw to a close the life of the greatest hero the Jewish people has ever known: Moses, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, the man who brought a group of slaves to freedom, turned a fractious collection of individuals into a nation, and so transformed them that they became the people of eternity.
It was Moses who mediated with God, performed signs and wonders, gave the people their laws, fought with them when they sinned, fought for them when praying for Divine forgiveness, gave his life to them and had his heart broken by them when they repeatedly failed to live up to his great expectations.
Each age has had its own image of Moses. For the more mystically inclined sages, Moses was the man who ascended to heaven at the time of the giving of the Torah, where he had to contend with the angels who opposed the idea that this precious gift be given to mere mortals. God told Moses to answer them, which he did decisively. “Do angels work that they need a day of rest? Do they have parents that they need to be commanded to honor them? Do they have an evil inclination that they need to be told, ‘Do not commit adultery?’ ” (Shabbat 88a). Moses the man out-argues the angels.
Other sages were more radical still. For them Moses was rabbeinu, “our rabbi” – not a king, a political or military leader, but a scholar and master of the law, a role that they invested with astonishing authority. They went so far as to say that when Moses prayed for God to forgive the people for the Golden Calf, God replied, “I cannot, for I have already vowed, ‘One who sacrifices to any God shall be destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19), and I cannot revoke My vow.” Moses replied, “Master of the universe, have You not taught me the laws of annulling vows? One may not annul his own vow, but a sage may do so.” Moses thereupon annulled God’s vow (Shemot Rabbah 43:4).
For Philo, the 1st century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Moses was a philosopher-king of the type depicted in Plato’s Republic. He governs the nation, organizes its laws, institutes its rites and conducts himself with dignity and honor; he is wise, stoical and self-controlled. This is, as it were, a Greek Moses, looking not unlike Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.
For Maimonides, Moses was radically different from all other prophets in four ways. First, others received their prophecies in dreams or visions, while Moses received his awake. Second, to the others God spoke in parables obliquely, but to Moses directly and lucidly. Third, the other prophets were terrified when God appeared to them but of Moses it says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Fourth, other prophets needed to undergo lengthy preparations to hear the Divine word; Moses spoke to God whenever he wanted or needed to. He was “always prepared, like one of the ministering angels” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7:6).
Yet what is so moving about the portrayal of Moses in the Torah is that he appears before us as quintessentially human. No religion has more deeply and systemically insisted on the absolute otherness of God and man, heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite. Other cultures have blurred the boundary, making some human beings seem godlike, perfect, infallible. There is such a tendency – marginal to be sure, but never entirely absent – within Jewish life itself: to see sages as saints, great scholars as angels, to gloss over their doubts and shortcomings and turn them into superhuman emblems of perfection. Tanach, however, is greater than that. It tells us that God, who is never less than God, never asks us to be more than simply human.
Moses is a human being. We see him despair and want to die. We see him lose his temper. We see him on the brink of losing his faith in the people he has been called on to lead. We see him beg to be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land he has spent his life as a leader traveling toward. Moses is the hero of those who wrestle with the world as it is and with people as they are, knowing that “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”
The Torah insists that “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deuteronomy 34:6), to avoid his grave being made a place of pilgrimage or worship. It is all too easy to turn human beings, after their death, into saints and demigods. That is precisely what the Torah opposes. “Every human being” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (5:2), “can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.”
Moses does not exist in Judaism as an object of worship but as a role model for each of us to aspire to. He is the eternal symbol of a human being made great by what he strove for, not by what he actually achieved. The titles conferred by him in the Torah, “the man Moses,” “God’s servant,” “a man of God,” are all the more impressive for their modesty. Moses continues to inspire.
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On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of his address, he turned to the last day of Moses’s life, when the man who had led his people to freedom was taken by God to a mountaintop from which he could see in the distance the land he was not destined to enter. That, said King, was how he felt that night:
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
That night was the last of his life. The next day he was assassinated. At the end, the still young Christian preacher – he was not yet forty – who had led the civil rights movement in the United States, identified not with a Christian figure but with Moses.
In the end the power of Moses’s story is precisely that it affirms our mortality. There are many explanations of why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I have argued that it was simply because “each generation has its leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a) and the person who has the ability to lead a people out of slavery is not necessarily the one who has the requisite skills to lead the next generation into its own and very different challenges. There is no one ideal form of leadership that is right for all times and situations.
Franz Kafka gave voice to a different and no less compelling truth:
“He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.”
What then does the story of Moses tell us? That it is right to fight for justice even against regimes that seem indestructible. That God is with us when we take our stand against oppression. That we must have faith in those we lead, and when we cease to have faith in them we can no longer lead them. That change, though slow, is real, and that people are transformed by high ideals even though it may take centuries.
In one of its most powerful statements about Moses, the Torah states that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:8). I used to think that these were merely two sequential phrases, until I realized that the first was the explanation for the second. Why was Moses’s strength unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed, because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, the right, the good and the holy. His words at the end of his life were as impassioned as they had been at the beginning.
That is Moses, the man who refused to “go gently into that dark night,” the eternal symbol of how a human being, without ever ceasing to be human, can become a giant of the moral life. That is the greatness and the humility of aspiring to be “a servant of God.”