Beha’alotecha: When You Rise Up
Today I am going to talk about Moshe, Moses. He goes by many names and roles – our teacher, our religious leader, our law giver, our prophet. He is the one traditionally attributed with authorship of the Torah. The root of his name, משה, means “to draw” because Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out of the water (see Exodus 2:10). This is a passive interpretation of the word. It can also be understood actively as one who draws out in the sense of deliverer or saviour.
When we talk about Moshe we usually describe him, his life, his actions, his teachings, even his experiences and his personal interrelationships. But it seems to me that we almost invariably do so from the outside describing what is observable. But what about Moshe’s inner life? We don’t seem to wonder about it or explore it. We spend a lot of time exploring pretty much everyone else’s inner life – Sarah, Rachel, Rivkah, Leah, Hagar, Miriam, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, many of Ya’akov’s sons, Dinah, etc., etc. But not Moshe. Why not?
I think there are two basic reasons: First, because he is ubiquitous in the Torah. From the time he is born until his death he is the major figure in four of the five books of the Torah. He is always there in the same way that the sky and sand is always there. We take him for granted. We read וידבר יהוה אל משה לאמר and similar phrases so many times that we are numb to them. We skip over them (and over Moshe) to get to God’s message. The second reason is because it is difficult. His life, his calling, his experiences, his personal sacrifices, are in many ways beyond description. Imagining all of that happening to a human being is hard enough, but imagining being that human is much, much harder.
What kind of man was Moshe? What were his qualities? How could he bear to live after some of his experiences, particularly those in which God spoke personally to him. Not in a dream; not in a vision; personally! Imagine his internal dialogue?
One example, just one example, of a day in the life of Moshe. A midrash on the day when Moshe went up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the beginning of the process which we now celebrate as Shavuot. The midrash tells the story of the angels striving to be given the Torah rather than Israel. Moshe met several fearsome angels along his way – Kemuel, the porter, Hadarniel, the speaker in lightening flashes, Sandalfon, who stands behind the Divine Throne, binding garlands for God, and who causes the hosts on high to tremble and shake when he raises God’s crown. All of them challenged the presence of Moshe, son of a woman, as he approached the Throne of Glory. Moshe destroyed Kemuel, God humbled Hadarniel, and actually came down off his throne and stood before Moshe, protecting him while he passed by the flames of Saldalfon. Then, with God’s help, Moshe ran across Rigyon, a stream of fire generated by the sweat of the holy Hayyot angelic beasts.
But it wasn’t over yet. Moshe had to meet the angel Gallizur, also known as Raziel, the one who reveals the teaching of God in the world. Then came the host of Angels of Terror that surround the Throne of Glory. They wanted to scorch Moshe with their fiery breath. But God protected him because he was there to receive the Torah for the people Israel. The angels questioned God, arguing that they should receive the Torah but God challenged them asking why they needed the Torah. Had they been slaves in Egypt whom God had delivered, did they work and were thus in need of a Shabbat, a sabbath, did they have parents to honour, did they have anything for another to covet, etc.? The angels ultimately relinquished their opposition and God gave the Torah to Israel. Moshe stayed 40 days on the mountain to learn the Torah from God but, on his way back down, he had to pass by all the terrible angels. In his fear he forgot all he had learned. So God sent the angel Yefefiyah, the prince of the Torah, to remind him. The other angels all became his friends and each gave him a remedy as well as the secret of the Holy Names contained in the Torah.
Isn’t that an incredible picture? Just imagine, if you can, the experience. Moshe’s terror, determination, faith, and unbelievable gratitude, not to mention his sense of responsibility. Why didn’t he just run away? God chose him for this task. How awesome! And how terrible!
Parshat Beha'alotecha gives us several glimpses of Moshe as a person - his character and his inner life, not to mention the personal sacrifices he had to make. The word beha'alotecha is from the root word means עלה. It means when you elevate or go up or when you step up.
And that’s what we see in Moshe. We see him stepping up. He shows us some of what he is as a leader, a word that does not even begin to describe it. And we see him as a leader who knows his own limitations. We also see him as a follower, of God’s instructions. He is good at taking orders from the Holy Blessed One. We see him as a husband and as a brother. We see him as a very special prophet, not one with whom God communicates through dreams or visions, but one-on-one, face-to-face. We see him as a humble person, the most humble man ever. And we get some glimpses into his personal and professional angst – at the difficulties of leading the asafsuf, the mixed multitude, dealing with all the complaining, admitting he can’t do it all on his own, dealing with the challenges to his leadership, with his sister’s illness, with the overwhelmingness of being in direct communication with God, and with the power of that, both positive and negative.
What goes on inside Moshe during all of these? What is he thinking when he God speaks to him, sometimes with seemingly mundane instructions? Does he ever wish that God would just communicate directly instead of always through him? Instead of telling Moshe to speak to Aaron about lighting the menorah, why doesn’t God just speak directly to Aaron? Or is Moshe secretly pleased at being God’s chosen mouth piece? What does Moshe think about the personal sacrifice he has to make in his marriage? He is supposed to keep himself in a state of purity so that he can enter the Tent of Meeting at any time God calls on him. That means he can’t have sex with his wife - not very conducive to a harmonious matrimonial relationship.
We know one thing for sure that pushes Moshe’s buttons – complaining people, especially people who complain about the food they miss and who wish they had never left Egypt. Why does that bother Moshe so much that he asks God to kill him rather than have to deal anymore with this wretchedness? God’s answer? Share the burden Moshe. You don’t have to do it on your own. Choose 70 wise elders to help you. Imagine Moshe’s relief at the realization that he is not expected to, that he doesn’t have to, do it on his own. And then there are his complaining siblings. They don’t complain to him directly. Moshe doesn’t know about it, but God hears it. God acknowledges Aaron and Miriam as prophets but reminds them that Moshe is his most trusted servant and so has a very special connection with God. He punished Miriam for gossiping behind Moshe’s back with tzaarat, snow-white scales, which we read about before in Parshat Metzora (Leviticus 13). Moshe’s response? Did he complain about their challenge to his leadership? No, he begged God to heal her. Imagine Moshe’s suffering, his inner humility. No anger, no disappointment, just love and compassion.
What do you think? If you were Moshe in Parshat Beha'alotecha, what would be your feelings? What would be your inner dialogue?