My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:
Moses was a world-changing individual. We know that. But sometimes, we don’t appreciate how far his influence extends.
I’ve been reading British historian Paul Johnson’s excellent A History of the Jews. His account of Moses was striking:
“If Abraham was the ancestor of the race, Moses was the essentially creative force, the moulder of the people; under him and through him, they became a distinctive people, with a future as a nation.”1
That much is eloquent, but familiar. It was what came next that grabbed my attention:
“He was a Jewish archetype, like Joseph, but quite different and far more formidable. He was a prophet and a leader; a man of decisive actions and electric presence, capable of huge wrath and ruthless resolve, but also a man of intense spirituality … a man who sought to transform the most intense idealism into practical statesmanship, and noble concepts into details of everyday life. Above all, he was a lawmaker and a judge …”2
When I read that, my first thought was that Moses sounded like a legendary hero, larger than life, like Hercules or Paul Bunyan.
Legendary heroes have powers “far beyond those of mortal men.” We can’t do what they do. We can only watch in amazement. Their mighty deeds make good stories. We can’t emulate them in our own lives.
But as amazing as legendary heroes are, Moses was more than that:
“Jewish writers and sages often went out of their way to stress the human weaknesses and failings of Moses. But there was no need; it is all in the record. Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the Biblical presentation is the way in which it shows Moses as hesitant and uncertain almost to the point of cowardice, mistaken, wrong-headed, foolish, irritable and, what is still more remarkable, bitterly conscious of his shortcomings.”3
Moses was a human being; perhaps better than we are, but not unattainably so. What we know about him cannot be verified by extra-Biblical evidence. The real questions are:
- Is the Moses story only about the past, or is it also about the present and future?
- Is it only about Moses, or is it also about us?
That reminded me of another book: The Uses of a Liberal Education by Brand Blanshard, the late Yale University philosopher. Although little known outside of academia, Blanshard reshaped the history of 20th-century philosophy. In one essay, he talked about the role that heroes play in forming our own character:
“A great personality may silently magnetize the minds of his people … Americans love Abraham Lincoln for what he was, even more than for what he did. And because they do, a million youths who read about him in New York and Omaha and Seattle find it, they don’t know why, a little more possible to feel malice toward none and charity for all.”4
Like Lincoln, Moses was admirable but not superhuman. He set an example that we can try to follow: spiritual, idealistic, practical, and a leader. A person who translates noble concepts into everyday life; who respects God, respects law, and judges everyone fairly.
And there’s more in the Biblical portrait of Moses. It’s intellectually helpful to know that honesty, kindness, justice, and courage are good. However, such knowledge by itself doesn’t change us. What changes us is to see or read about an example, a person who demonstrates those qualities in the face of adversity:
“Our admirations help us translate our newfound powers into action; they supply interest and zest in trying out a new line. If anyone, hearing another speak or sing, says ‘Wouldn’t it be really something to speak like that? What wouldn’t I give to sing like that?’ he has taken the small but necessary first step toward doing just this.”5
Such examples inspire us to improve ourselves, and provide us with the emotional fuel to do so — “galvanizing us into effort that we should otherwise make less effectively, or not make at all.”6
Moses’s example is human enough to motivate us, but lofty enough that we might never reach it — and that’s a good thing, says Blanshard:
“Admiration dispels complacency, and is always raising its eyes to a summit higher up. Does it see the summit, the snowy peak where the flag can at last be planted and the ascent declared at an end? No; for the secret is that there is no summit there at all. There is only an infinite slope that goes up and up till it is lost among the stars.”7
Blanshard, B. (1973), The Uses of a Liberal Education. LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Co.
Johnson, P. (1987), A History of the Jews. New York: Harper Perennial.