Joel Cohen
Joel Cohen

When Moses revealed his humanness

Moses is about to die. His death is only three weeks away. In his own words this time around, Moses narrates his irrevocable death sentence from God as the day of his death quickly approaches. His meandering journey in the desert (and that of the Children of Israel) is reaching its end. There will be no call from the governor. Unlike every human being, except perhaps a death row inmate, Moses knows that his death is imminent even though there is, for him, no physical need to die. How can we not wonder about how he copes with that?

In this week’s parshat Voetchanan, so close to death’s door, Moses describes how he had pleaded with God for a stay (Deuteronomy 3:23-27). Using that sui generis phraseology, he presented the sense of a soulful implosion from deep within him. Still, Moses didn’t tell his flock at the time, or us, that he pleaded with God, as might have others, advocating for himself by saying how much he had done for the House of Israel, or as God’s emissary: that he deserved to travel, even if ever-so-briefly, into the Promised Land, if only to imagine the future of his people. Instead, he explained that he expressively, perhaps impulsively, praised God — perhaps a ploy of another sort to gain a more sympathetic audience for his entreaties.

Either way, though, this prodigious, almost superhuman, figure — for so many, the greatest man who ever lived — reveals his humanness in this verge-of-death retelling. He astonishingly tells the Children of Israel that the God’s death sentence had been imposed because “God got angry at me because of you.”  He then repeats God’s rebuking words that Moses was going too far, “Do not speak to Me further about this.” Essentially: It’s over for you. Stop, Moses!

Moses tells nothing here, though, about his “capital offense” in hitting the rock rather than talking to it (in order to release water for the thirsting people) — odd as that surely was at the time when God Himself was telling the story.  Rather, he essentially says that “My forthcoming death is your fault.”  Not nearly the same account as when God Himself had previously narrated the episode in real-time which said nothing about “the Nation’s” defining hand in Moses’s death sentence, but did unequivocally say that Moses sinfully hit the rock (Numbers 20: 7-12).

Was Moses suffering dementia — had his memory or mind failed him? Surely not. Indeed, Moses would tell us, even near his death, that his physical and mental strengths still abounded. Rather, perhaps, approaching death, Moses was more closely in touch with his inner feelings from which he had previously somehow managed to remain aloof. That, indeed, as he would now admit to himself, he hit the rock out of frustration with a contentious people that, he subjectively felt, had forced his hand — quite literally.  Maybe, in modern terminology, Moses was simply “venting.” Imagine, if one can, the incomparable Moses venting!

Notably, the oftentimes polemical rabbinic mind has surprisingly tended to canonize the Torah’s greatest figures — men like Abraham, David and Moses. These sainted rabbis, often questionably, have enlarged these Biblical icons in death beyond what they were in life. They have airbrushed the personas of these human beings in ways that have undermined their very human qualities. In truth, though, even the greatest exemplars of humankind aren’t perfect. A round diamond has no brilliance. Lights and shadows, hills and valleys, lend beauty to the landscape — and to the lives of God’s creatures too. Perfect can, indeed, become the enemy of good.

Perhaps more important too, the “human” attributes of these figures, as exemplified in this episode of Moses’s life, often provide exemplars for self-betterment. When we recognize and accept the occasional failures or shortcomings of figures like Abraham, David and, in this instance, Moses, for example, we may actually engage in self-improvement: maybe Moses was teaching us to do better than he did if one day we are required to walk in his sandals.

Never should one expect to emulate Moses. But realistically studying him and great figures like him, warts and all, potentially enables improvement. Indeed, perhaps, Moshe Rabeinu actually instructs us even through his personal dereliction — as surely he, the greatest of teachers, would have wanted to.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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