Moshe Wasn't Perfect - And That's OK

The story of the Exodus is gathering momentum. God appears to Moshe, promising that the time has come to redeem His people. Moshe is commanded to confront the most powerful man on earth and demand his nation's release from bondage. But just as things are becoming interesting, the Torah unexpectedly halts the narrative with a seeming non-sequitur: Moshe and Aharon's family tree. The Torah spends some fifteen verses, beginning with the tribe of Reuven, summarizing the leaders' yichus. To what end does the Torah interrupt itself?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a far-reaching explanation. Prior to Chapter Six nothing had come easily to Moshe. He is rebuffed by the Jews and Pharaoh alike. He questions his own competency. From this point forward, however, Moshe and Aharon are set to achieve sudden fame. They will perform miracles, outclassing the Egyptian sorcerers and thumbing their noses at Pharaoh himself. Precisely before detailing their meteoric ascent, the Torah pauses to stress a crucial caveat: when all is said and done, Moshe and Aharon remain human. Unlike the Egyptians who deified Pharaoh, at no point does the Torah conceive of Moshe and Aharon as anything but mere mortals, born of flesh and blood.

Elsewhere Rav Hirsch broadens his analysis, suggesting that this motif bookends Moshe's career. In accounting for the Torah's assertion that no human knew the whereabouts of Moshe's burial plot (Devarim 32:6), Rav Hirsch explains:

Let us remember that the worship of a shrine developed on many occasions at the gravesite of many people who accomplished much for humanity. On this basis we can appreciate the importance of this final scene in the portrait of Moshe's life.

One might have imagined, suggests Rav Hirsch, that Moshe's burial plot would have served as a fount of inspiration to the Jewish people throughout the generations. We can only imagine the scene: thousands of people streaming to worship at the headstone of Moshe Rabbeinu. And yet, so great is the danger of deification that God eternally obscures the grave's whereabouts. The emphasis on Moshe's humanity must begin with his meteoric rise and conclude with the sunset of the great leader's demise.


Our theme, though, takes an important turn in rabbinic literature, which extends the motif of our mortality to all humankind. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (38b), to take just one example among many, records the angels' opposition to the creation of man:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to create man, He created a company of ministering angels and said to them: Is it your desire that we make a man in our image? They answered: Sovereign of the Universe, what will be his deeds? Such and such will be his deeds, He replied. Thereupon they exclaimed: Sovereign of the Universe, What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that you think of him? Thereupon He stretched out His little finger among them and consumed them with fire. The same thing happened with a second company. The third company said to Him: Sovereign of the Universe, what did it avail the former [angels] that they spoke to Thee [as they did]? the whole world is Thine, and whatsoever that You wish to do therein, do it.

The angels oppose the creation of man due to his fallibility. God dismisses the argument, incinerating the angels who make this claim. It is precisely our errancy, the midrash suggests, that God desires. As the Kotzker Rebbe was fond of noting, the Torah teaches that "And sanctified people you shall be for me" (Shemot 22:30). The Kotzker explained that God wants us to serve Him not as angels but as humans. He has plenty of angels up in heaven and doesn't need any more.

The work of the well-known psychologist Carol Dweck further illuminates the midrash's significance. In her bestselling book Mindset, Dweck argues that we can adopt one of two tendencies when encountering any situation, especially a challenge: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. In the former one adopts a victim mentality, focusing energy on casting blame upon others. The latter bespeaks a can-do attitude, in which one focuses on ways in which he can improve the situation, refusing to waste precious energies on that which is beyond one's control. This is the essential distinction between the angels and humanity. Angels, suggests the midrash, are perfection. To err is human, as Pope wrote, and that's alright. God doesn't need us to be divine.

A letter penned by the famed twentieth-century rabbinic personality Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Iggerot u-Ketavim, pgs. 217-219), as noted by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, offers a powerful ilustration of this ideal - and an ironic rebuttal to many run-of-the-mill hagiographic rabbinic biographies. Rav Hutner corresponded with a student who was struggling mightily with his Torah study and self-confidence. The Rosh Yeshiva encouragingly answered by explaining that all great individuals struggled in their own religious commitment. Even the Chafetz Chaim struggled in regard to his marquee cause, lashon ha-ra. The greatness of the Chafetz Chaim and other gedolim lay not their inborn greatness but in their tenacity and success in overcoming their challenges. The young correspondent, far from being sinful, had demonstrated precisely the hallmarks of greatness modeled by the outstanding figures of generations past.

All this returns us to our protagonist. As Rav Hirsch had noted, Moshe encounters adversity at every stage, from a youthful identity crisis to his exasperation with the Jewish people, to the gossip circulated by none other than his siblings. And his challenges are not just external. At key junctures, he grapples fiercely with his self-confidence, faith, and leadership. Much as the Chafetz Chaim, though, these struggles do not detract from his legacy. Quite the opposite. They deepen it, rendering Moshe a profoundly human model for our emulation as we set out to reach the heights of our own humanity.

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