A New Spin on Moses

April 1, 2017 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Avivah Zornberg is a celebrated biblical commentator, but even she hesitated when invited to write a biography of Moses. Fortunately, she took on this seemingly impossible task, producing Moses: A Human Life (2016). This deeply thoughtful work blends traditional rabbinic interpretations with modern psychology, philosophy, and literature. Likewise, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a former British chief rabbi, applies contemporary learning to Moses in Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (2015). Both books bubble with ideas to explore in this year’s seder. Here is a sampling.

Moses as Literary Character

For 30 years, Avivah Zornberg has taught Torah in Jerusalem and written critically acclaimed books of biblical commentary. But in her first career, the British-born Zornberg was a professor of English literature; she holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. That background infuses her biography of Moses; she treats him like a complex literary character.

Zornberg starts with Moses’s mother’s decision to set him afloat in the Nile, noting the irony that this “both fulfills and defies the Egyptian decree: ‘Every male child you shall cast into the river’” (Ex. 1:22). Pharaoh’s daughter adopts him, and he grows up as an Egyptian prince. Consequently, says Zornberg, Moses’s identity “is fraught with ambiguity.” He is Hebrew by birth but Egyptian by culture. The Israelite people are “both his and not his.” No wonder that when God calls out to Moses from the burning bush, Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). Zornberg compares Moses to George Eliot’s title character in Daniel Deronda, another man who loses and regains his Jewish identity. Deronda grows up as the son of an English aristocrat, learns that he is Jewish, and turns to Zionism.

Zornberg’s writing is dense and challenging, but she rewards readers with unexpectedly moving insights. On God’s decree that Moses may not enter Canaan, Zornberg quotes Franz Kafka:

He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. The dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life, incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.

For Zornberg, Moses’s life is full of pathos because it is like every human life – inevitably incomplete.

Moses as Storyteller

For Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Sacks, like Zornberg, draws on modern sources. To illuminate Moses’s success as a leader, Sacks references the work of Harvard professor of education and psychology Howard Gardner. Quoting Gardner, Sacks contends that a leader has the ability to tell a story that “explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision.” Sacks offers the example of Churchill during World War II, who inspired his people by telling the story of Britain’s indomitable courage in the fight for freedom.

According to Sacks, Moses is the “supreme storyteller” because he not only tells the story of the Israelites but also inspires the Israelites to become a “nation of storytellers.” Moses both recounts the story of the redemption from slavery and admonishes the Israelites that in the future they too must tell the story (Deut. 26: 5-8). In postbiblical times, this became the crux of the Passover Seder. The secret of Jewish renewal, says Sacks, is passing the story down to new generations.