David Stromberg

Where is Moses when you need him?

Philip  De Vere, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Philip De Vere, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

More than once, members of the People of Israel have been struck down by God—usually when they are busier with their personal power than with the life of the spirit. Moses’s central lesson as a leader was that direct rule and concentrated power is never good. He himself had to learn the lesson from Jethro, who saw him in the role of supreme leader—not only answering all of the Israelites’ questions but also adjudicating their disagreements—and suggested setting up a court system. The idea of the court system was that Moses should not be in the position to decide every aspect of communal life. It should necessarily lie in the hands of others.

Yet the biblical example of Moses’s judicial system is not to be taken literally. The idea that, millennia later, we would put the appointment of these judges in the hands of one person or party is absurd today. The core idea that emanates so clearly from the Torah is that no single source of power should ever exist. Yet pundits who support Benjamin Netanyahu are consistent in using literal comparisons to the Hebrew Bible as part of their attempts to delegitimize the nation’s grassroots opposition to a concentration of power. Using the example of the biblical figure of Korah and his rebellion against Moses, they suggest that Israelis who oppose Bibi are comparable to those who opposed the hallowed spiritual leader of the People of Israel.

No one—certainly not Bibi—can be compared to Moses. But it might be possible to think of Netanyahu and his band of extremists as playing the part of Korah and his conspirators rebelling against the existing social order.  In essence, Bibi’s ongoing attempts to concentrate power at any cost play themselves out like Korah’s attempts to undermine the system that Moses helped the People of Israel found. Moses set up a decentralized system of power wherein the ideals of God’s commandments were applied by a complex institutional structure of priests and judges—while Korah wanted to undermine that structure and pass his personal idea of truth as law.

The comparison of Bibi’s detractors to Korah’s rebellion exposes the extent to which his supporters see him—perhaps unconsciously—as the supreme or messianic leader of Israel. Whereas the comparison of Bibi to Korah brings him down to human size. It also avoids the trap of putting up any living person in the position of a modern-day Moses—who will never live again and who remains our teacher, Moshe rabeinu. This is why, symbolically, Moses dies before the Israelites enter the Land of Israel. As a nation, they have to keep up his teachings, not play the role he played, in the efforts to establish the nation’s institutions.

Bibi is trying to remake Israel’s institutions just as Korah tried to remake those that governed the Israelites during Moses’s time. In the end, Korah and his bunch were killed by God—not by Moses—and the Israelites who opposed their punishment died of plague. Moses did not play a role in their destruction. He actually took no action against them. He only stood as an example of faith in higher powers—belief in the fact that people are not all-powerful and that a justice system has to exist in order to apply our ideals to real-life situations.

Today, in a modern society based on the ideals of civil rights, we look to the Supreme Court as the place where such ideals are enshrined. The sanctity of this institution is at the heart of our protest against the judicial takeover tearing this nation apart. No single person or party should influence what a group of selected judges can or cannot decide. Every attempt to present the selection of these judges as skewed is, in essence, an attempt to skew the selection in a different direction. It is not an attempt to improve the system. It’s an attempt to usurp it in the service of greater and more concentrated power.

The inheritors of Moses’s legacy are not our politicians. They are all of the people—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, and everyone else—who live under this land’s common law. Our inherited system is far from perfect. And even if it continues to perpetuate many injustices, it still has genuine ideals: equality, freedom, security. There’s a lot of work to be done before all of Israel’s sectors can share in these ideals equally. But that doesn’t mean we should now destroy them simply because we have not yet realized them all.

There are those in Israel’s society and ruling coalition who choose to focus on some ideals while stamping on others. But we can’t afford to prioritize some ideals at the cost of others. Since, unfortunately, we have no Moses to help us preserve our spirits against the onslaught of those who undermine our ideals and fragile social fabric, we have no choice but to safeguard these ideals ourselves.

About the Author
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, Speculative Nonfiction, Public Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of "Old Truths and New Clichés" (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a new translation of Singer's canonical story, "Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition" (Restless Books). His recent work includes "A Short Inquiry into the End of the World" (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew” (The Hedgehog Review). The third essay, "To Kill an Intellectual" (The Fortnightly Review), is now being published in installments.
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