Moshe Had a God

There is an expression in Israeli slang – “ein lo elohim,” literally, “he doesn’t have a god.” It describes someone who has no boundaries, generally does whatever they want, whatever is in their best interest, whatever is convenient for them. Someone who cheats or lies to get their way, especially at the expense of other people, “ein lo elohim.”
At its most basic level, having God means believing there is something greater than ourselves. “Having God” in this expression does not necessarily refer to the traditional / standard religious sense. Without some kind of higher moral authority, some kind of transcendent meaning in the world (call it what you will; for thousands of years people have called it God) people would just do whatever is best for them. All of our actions would be based on the most extreme version of pure utilitarianism. A world that functions like that is a world in which “ein Elohim;” a person who operates in that way, “ein lo Elohim.”
Truthfully, someone can be outwardly religious, or praise religion or its institutions, but we can tell from the way they function or make decisions, “ein lo Elohim.” They only care about themselves and their own interest; no one else matters.
I don’t know how old the expression is, but it’s profound. For what is the opposite of “ein lo Elohim?” About whom can we say “yesh lo Elohim?” Simply, it’s someone who does things that are right and good and moral even when those things are in conflict with their own self interest.
Pharaoh had commanded the Egyptian midwives who delivered the babies to kill all the males. Why did Shifra and Puah let them live? וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים – “But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the males alive.” These women risked being caught and what surely would have been the death penalty because they knew killing the male children was wrong.
That’s what “the midwives feared God” means. Maimonides wrote, concerning love and fear (awe) of God:
“When man will reflect concerning His works, and His great and wonderful creatures….he will spontaneously be filled with love… and when he will think of all these matters he will be taken aback in a moment and stricken with awe, and realize that he is an infinitesimal creature, humble and dark, standing with an insignificant and slight knowledge in the presence of the All Wise.”
Recognizing that there is there is Something out there so much greater beyond us is “love of God;” coming to terms with what that means – that it’s not all about us, that our actions and decisions matter, that we are called upon to act in a manner that recognizes a higher moral authority in the universe and not make all our decisions based on utility, self-interest, and convenience – that’s “fear of God.” Someone who recognizes that and lives that way (setting aside for the moment ritual practice, which I agree is central to Judaism), “yesh lo Elohim.”
Why was Moshe, of all people at the time, chosen to lead our ancestors out of Egypt? The Torah tells us very little about his life prior to his first encounter with God at the bush. We learn of but three episodes. (1) He encounters an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave; he couldn’t bare the sight of the strong hurting the weak and he struck down the Egyptian. (2) He saw two Hebrew slaves fighting – he couldn’t bare that injustice either, and he confronted them. This was not easy: the fighting Hebrews repudiated him and Pharaoh threatened to kill him. But this did not deter Moshe’s sense of justice, his feeling of obligation towards others. (3) As he fled Pharaoh and arrived at a well, he saw several sisters there to draw water; shepherds bullied them and drove them away. Moshe rescued them from the shepherds and watered their flock.
The prominent essayist Achad Ha’am in his essay “Moses” observed:
“This is the sum of our knowledge about Moses’ life till the time when he stood before Pharaoh and he was then “eighty years old.” Of all that long stretch of years, and what happened in them, tradition takes no account, because they were only the preface, only the preparation for the real work of the Prophet. If an exception was made in the case of these three events, which happened to the Prophet at the outset of his life’s journey, and if we see that all three have the same characteristic, that of the Prophet standing up against the world in the name of righteousness, we may believe that the object of the tradition was to throw this conflict into relief, and to show how the Prophet displayed the essential qualities of his kind from the very first.”
Moshe was the preeminent example of someone who “yesh lo Elohim,” he had fear of God before he ever even met God or heard of Him and he was born alive due to someone else’s fear of God. This is remarkable: it was not seeing the burning bush and hearing God’s voice that led to Yirat Hashem (fear of God) but rather the reverse! It was his fear of God – his consistently having acted out of a sense of justice and morality even when it was contrary to his own interest – that led him to meet God in the first place and to be appointed our great leader.
And herein lies our lesson for all ages. Moshe was the greatest leader, and no one was ever or will ever be like him. However, let us take note of how God selected that leader. The only people fit for leadership are ones who “yesh lahem Elohim.” When someone demonstrates time after time, action after action, decision after decision, that they operate purely out of convenience and self-regard without any regard for a higher calling, for other people, for justice, for right and wrong, they have demonstrated they are unfit for leadership. For anyone who did not understand this earlier, they understand it now. In the spirit of V’halachta Bidrachav (imitatio dei, following in God’s ways), let us resolve to select our leaders the way He did.
About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.
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