Moses, Judge And Lover

From the very beginning of Deuteronomy, the Moses who we encounter is a contradictory man defying what we have known about him previously. All through Exodus, our law giver has shunned the role of public speaker, preferring to hand that task to his brother, Aaron. The reason for his reticence?  Exodus 4:10 tells us the whole story.

Desperately attempting to get out of God’s charge to him to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelite slaves, Moses begs: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” After a bit more haggling with God, God appoints Moses’ brother to be his mouthpiece, and Moses is then dispatched to a life of leadership, struggle and nation building.  Fast forward from that moment at the Burning Bush when Moses complained about his oratorical disabilities to this very first verse in Deuteronomy: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Note what is so significant about this verse. Moses, the man who is not a man of words, addresses an entire assembly of over a million people with words.  The Hebrew words, devarim (words) and dibber (addressed) are grammatically related, thus intensifying the meaning of what is happening here:  Moses is about to pour out a profusion of words, specifically words of warning, admonition, complaint and judgment upon the motley and rambunctious Israelites prior to his death and their entrance into the promised land.  Not only that, Moses –the same man who is slow of speech and tongue- will speak to his charges for a total of 33 long, eloquent, and haranguing chapters, all in God’s name!

Clearly, words matter to Deuteronomy, and placing them in the mouth of Moses is of the greatest importance.  What we see as a contradiction between the Moses of Exodus and the Moses of Deuteronomy may in fact be that.  Scholarly consensus identifies Deuteronomy as a book that was composed and edited later than the first four books of the Torah and then appended to the Torah during the age of religious reform of the Judean king, Josiah, around 621 BCE.  However, that historical fact does not do justice to the inspired religious and literary purposes of whoever attached Deuteronomy.  Whatever the histories of her respective sources, the Torah as she stands is a literary and spiritual unity.  The Moses who reluctantly accepts his mission, then gives the people God’s law, then begins to burn out as the Israelite trek wears on for forty years, is the Moses who now will reflect upon his life, the failings of the Israelites, and his insights about how the people can succeed in the promised land as a people of God.  He is a man with one last opportunity to tell this people he loves so much, how angry they make him and God at times.  And tell them he will.

From the very beginning of his final addresses to the people, Moses does sound like a man haranguing and judging them, quite harshly.  This morning, only 12 verses into his first address, we read these words of his to Israel, at Deuteronomy 1:12:  “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden and the bickering?”  Note that this verse, in Hebrew, begins with the word Eichah, “how?”  You may have noticed that it was sung using the tune of the book of Eichah, also known as Lamentations, that we will read on Monday night at Tisha B’Av services:  a not too subtle reminder that the people who tried Moses so sorely in the desert wound up in exile as a result of their sinfulness later on in the land of Canaan.  For the following 33 chapters, Moses will really annoy them about worshipping only one God, remembering their earlier backsliding, preparing to live according to the covenant, and accepting that they will likely fail at doing what God wants anyway.  Like an emotionally critical parent, Moses does not seem to be interested in warm nurturance and positive reinforcement.  He is all judgment all the time.

But this analysis of Moses’ relationship with the Israelites, even and especially at the end of his long life and tortured dealings with them, barely scratches the surface.  Moses could never have spoken to the children of Israel this way effectively were there not something much deeper to their relationship that gave his words credibility.  Consider the insight of our rabbis who commented upon this first verse of Deuteronomy, which is found in the great midrashic compilation, Devarim Rabbah:

The words of rebuke and judgment found in Deuteronomy really should have been spoken by Bilaam the prophet, who was originally sent to curse the people of Israel.  The blessings that Bilaam gave them back in the book of Numbers really should have been spoken by Moses, their leader!  However, had Bilaam rebuked and judged them, the Israelites would have dismissed him, saying, “Of course Bilaam’s berating us.  He hates us!”  Had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have scoffed at him, saying, “Of course Moses is blessing them.  He’s one of them, so he’s biased towards them and he loves them!  Thus God decreed that Moses their lover should rebuke and judge them, while Bilaam who hated them should bless them. (Devarim Rabbah 1:4)

Recall, of course, that Bilaam is the non-Israelite prophet and magician sent by the Moabite king Balak to curse and destroy the Israelites.  He ultimately blesses them because, as he warns Balak, he can only speak what God puts into his mouth.  Later biblical and rabbinic traditions cast Bilaam not as a hapless hired gun, but as a person who actively hates the Israelites.  He is the perfect person to bless them in this reversal of fortune.  Yet what is most significant about this rabbinic teaching is the way it applies good political and psychological insight to talking about rebuke and judgment between people:  to avoid others’ accusations of gushing bias, you want to show that you can criticize the folks you love for their shortcomings, even more than the folks you hate.  Even more important, your judgment of others can only possess the highest credibility and human authenticity when you do it out of genuine love. It is easy to tell off the people in your life for whom you have no use or who are your enemies, but such judgment often carries little moral or spiritual weight with it, weighed down as it is by bias.  It is much harder to criticize those you love, yet only with love as the basis for a real relationship can your more harshly critical words have any value or impact.  This certainly seems to underlie the sharp critiques by the prophet Isaiah of the people of Israel that we read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  After chastising them for their sins, and calling them to do justice, God has Isaiah tell the people:  “Come let us reach an understanding.  Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow white. Be they red as dyed wool they can become like fleece!”  (Isaiah 1:18)  God and Isaiah speak in judgment with the people because their judgmental words emerge from real love, passion, and investment in their well being.

In our own lives, we learn over and over again that judgment and criticism have to be balanced with mercy and compassion for the person we are critiquing, that is founded upon love and respect for that person.  Certainly, there are many times when judgment and criticism can be excessive, and when a great deal more compassionate and humble understanding of a person’s actions and attitudes is called for, and when we would do well not to be so quick to judge. However, a truly authentic moral choice for human beings is not between total neutrality and being excessively judgmental.  Like Moses, we human beings, who are defined by loving relationships, can carefully choose between criticism of others that is based upon love and respect, and criticism that seeks only to hurt and denigrate.  As we approach these final days before Tisha B’Av, may we learn from the words of our teacher Moses, who judged us precisely because he loved us and wanted the best for us.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.