Yael Unterman
Featured Post

‘Bibi-o-drama,’ Moses, and the eternally ungrateful Israelites

How does Bibi feel? What about Moses? An understanding of the leaders' inner emotional space may help you understand their actions
Illustrative. Moses Views the Promised Land. (engraving by Gerard Jollain from the 1670 La Saincte Bible)
Illustrative. Moses Views the Promised Land. (engraving by Gerard Jollain from the 1670 La Saincte Bible)

I have the privilege of being a Torah teacher. For many years now, alongside the more usual ways of teaching, I’ve been utilizing a technique called Bibliodrama as a way for adults to engage deeply with Tanach stories, drawing on both the biblical text and their lives. The technique was invented by Harvard professor of literature Peter Pitzele, and I fell in love with it at first sight. The technique’s name is a little misleading, for it’s not acting; inspired by psychodrama, it is a group attempt to step into the minds, emotions, motivations of the biblical figures, in a kind of spontaneously arising modern midrash that leads to tremendous insights for both the participants and me.

Cut to a few days ago. In the post-election chaos and insanity in which we are still immersed, Bibi, under the shadow of looming indictments or simply because his time has come, has found himself scrambling to hold on to what is left of his power. In this context, I posted not a Bibliodrama but a “Bibi-o-drama” on my social media, and invited and challenged my friends to answer the following:

Imagine you are Bibi. Step into his shoes. Now tell me Bibi – how are you feeling right now? What’s going on for you?

A friend, who has done Bibliodrama with me and understood that I was asking her to try to inhabit Bibi’s inner emotional space, responded: “This nation is so ungrateful! For decades I have tirelessly served them, stopped buses from exploding in their faces, stopped Iran from nuking them, kept their economy stable and strong, kept Putin at bay, put Israel on the map – and all they can think about are a couple of small misdeeds. OK, so I’m not perfect, but I’m by far the best leader they’ve had. Don’t they see they can’t thrive without me?!?”

I found this fascinating, because it was in direct dialogue with a question that had arisen in an actual Bibliodrama I had conducted not long before. This particular Bibliodrama spans the weekly portions of Va’etchanan, Vayelech and Ve-zot Ha-bracha in Deuteronomy. It explores Moses’ yearning to enter the Promised Land, and his failure to do achieve that (ostensibly a punishment for his sin of hitting the rock to elicit water, instead of speaking to it as commanded by God).

In Va’etchanan, Moses explains to the Israelites:

And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24. O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might? 25. I beg you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon.

Then he tells them:

26. But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter. 27. Get up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan. 28. But charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see.

Subsequently, in Vayelech, we see Moses, before the assembly of the Israelites, parting from them, saying:

I am one hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; also the Lord has said to me, You shall not go over this Jordan.

He conveys the mantle of leadership to Joshua and, following the song of Haazinu and blessings to the tribes Israel, he begins his ascent to the mountain, to the view of the entire land, and to his last moments, all described in the final chapter of the Torah.

This Bibliodrama — in which Moses faces disappointment and death, and the Israelites part from their leader of 40 years and prepare for the massive changes of new leadership and entering the land — is a powerful one. On this last occasion, however, a question arose I had not heard before. One participant, Henry Rieser, while speaking as Moses, wondered why the Israelites did not pray and plead for him, their beloved leader, to come into the land with them.

To my mind, this is an extremely intriguing question. Moses had interceded and begged for his flock on numerous occasions; couldn’t they, seeing how much he was suffering, have tried to pray for him just this once? And so, when my aforementioned friend wrote on my wall speaking as Bibi, I responded that there is something about the situation of Bibi that resonated Moses (lehavdil – I hasten to add that my comparison of Moses and Bibi extends only to the specific things I mention here). Moses could have said, echoing her words:

This nation is so ungrateful! For decades I have tirelessly served them, prayed for them, led them through the heat and cold, taught them, saved them from annihilation. OK so I have a misdeed – I hit a rock. But can’t they pray for me for just once?

What might some possible answers be to this question? Our first port of call is to consider it pure ingratitude on the part of the Israelites. This stiff-necked people murmur and complain their way through their desert journey, never once approaching Moses to say, “We’d like to thank you for all of your service, and here’s a gold watch to show our appreciation.” The Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, derives from the name Judah, Yehudah, whom his mother Leah so named as a mark of gratitude for the birth of a fourth son. Gratitude is embedded in our very name as a nation — and it might well be because we aren’t very good at it (note certain manifestations on the road and traveling abroad, enough said). We need to exercise it constantly simply in order to mature from our default childish whining mode into a strong appreciation of our blessings and faith in the good.

Alongside this, some other very interesting answers present themselves. Participant Henry wrote to me after the Bibliodrama (but before the elections): “While [the Israelites not stepping forward to pray] would have been a disappointment to Moshe, it may also have been a ‘reality check’ for him as well. 40+ years on the job is a heck of a long tenure. While it can work in some professions, i.e., orchestra conductors, with leaders of Bnei/Am Yisrael it’s a different story. By the way, if Bibi gets re-elected, how many years will he need to be in office to reach the big four-oh?”

A poll on a huge and active Facebook group delightfully titled “God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place for Serious Discussion of Jewish Matters” elicited some suggestions, a sample of which I bring here (see here for the full identity of the authors, along with additional answers):

  • The Israelites were unwilling to take a stand. They remained passive, possibly due to learned helplessness from generations of trauma (though much of that generation had died out by now); or simply due to not knowing how to, never being taught or empowered to.
  • Do the Israelites pray at all in the Torah? They cry out from their burdens in Egypt, but not, at least in Exodus, to God. They cry out too at the Reed Sea, with the Egyptians close behind them and the sea in front. However this, one writer noted, is what Rav Soloveitchik terms “tze’akah” crying out, as opposed to “tefillah,” praying. It stems from terror and suffering, and is very different from pleading and intercession for another person.
  • If the great Moses’ prayer had not succeeded, what chance did theirs have? Knowing how he prayed for them, and his siblings, on several occasions, they may well gained the mistaken idea that it was only Moses whose prayers could be effective. They had no sense of their own prayers being effective (though in truth they had been – God heard them in Egypt. But they suffered for centuries before that occurred, so their experience was one of being ignored).This may be a failure on Moses’ part, in not teaching them about the power of prayer, indeed missing opportunities. As he told them at the sea (Ex. 14:14), “God will fight for you and you shall hold your peace.” But perhaps they were not ready.
  • When they had previously expressed desires, it had gone horribly wrong – the story of the spies, of the meat etc. Now they were terrified to ask for anything. (They should have learned from the daughters of Zelophchad, though! Why did they not pray for Moses? Perhaps some did, in private….?)
  • How did the Israelites feel about Moses? Did they love him and want him coming with them to the Land? We don’t know. It was a complicated relationship. Perhaps they knew the truth, that it was his time, that he was not the right person to be leading in the land. After all, an entire generation of men had died and would not enter the land, so the idea was not new to them. Aaron and Miriam had also passed on. Moses belonged to the old order.

I draw to a close with another poster’s words: “Unfortunately the Jewish people never appreciated Moshe to the fullest. There are numerous midrashim in which Hazal say that the Jews suspected Moshe from anything — from theft to adultery with their wives.” This is the lot of leaders, and Bibi is no exception. Many might say deservedly so. I leave that to people who like to analyze politics.

Instead, I will remain in the realm I understand better, questions about Torah. So for my final note, let me quote what someone wrote:  “We aren’t like him, but we should aspire to be, and better ourselves.” Indeed, did the Israelites do this? What did they learn from Moses, if anything? That is another question, to be answered on another occasion.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
Related Topics
Related Posts