Of What Was Moses Afraid?


This week’s Covenant & Conversation owes its genesis to my teacher, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch. One of the great Maimonidean scholars of our time, he taught us, his students, that Torah leadership demands the highest intellectual and moral courage. He did this in the best way possible: by personal example. The following thoughts, which are his, are a small indication of what I learned from him – not least that Torah is, among other things, a refusal to give easy answers to difficult questions.

It was, in its way, the most fateful encounter in Jewish history. Moses, a fugitive in Midian, is tending his flocks. It is the slow movement in the symphony of his life. His first taste of leadership was not a happy one. He had intervened to protect an Israelite slave from being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. The next day he tried to bring peace between two Israelites who were having a quarrel. Their reaction was indignant. “Who appointed you as a prince and leader over us?” He had not yet thought of becoming a leader, yet already his leadership was being challenged. It was a taste of things to come.

Realising that his intervention the previous day had already become known, Moses escapes from Egypt and finds refuge in Midian where his true identity is unknown. Yitro’s daughters, whom he rescued from rough treatment at the hands of local shepherds, tell their father that “An Egyptian man saved us.” Moses looks, speaks, and dresses like an Egyptian. He marries one of Yitro’s daughters and settles down to the life of a shepherd, quiet, anonymous, and far from Pharaoh and the Israelites.

Yet his memories do not leave him alone. They come into sudden focus as he is tending his sheep and his eye catches sight of a strange phenomenon:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.
Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight - why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Then He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

God tells him that the moment has come. He has heard the cries of the Israelites. In response both to their cries and to the promise he made with the patriarchs, He is about to bring them out of slavery and He calls on Moses to lead them. The drama of the Exodus is about to begin.

One sentence in this passage intrigued the Sages: “At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.” They noticed a parallel between these words and a later passage, after the Golden Calf, when Moses comes down from the mountain having secured forgiveness for the people, and new Tablets to replace those he had broken when he first saw the Calf. The text reads:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Two Tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses' his face radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.

On this, the Sages commented:

Rabbi Samuel ben Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: in reward for three [pious acts], Moses was privileged to receive three [forms of reward]. In reward for “and Moses hid his face,” he was given a radiant face. In reward for “he was afraid,” he merited that “they were afraid to come near him.” In reward for “to look upon God,” he merited that “he sees the form of the Lord.”

It is a lovely idea. Moses, who came closer to God than any other human being before or since, took on some of the characteristics of God Himself – not that he became Godlike (Moses, like every other figure in the Hebrew Bible, remains human, not Divine) but that his face shone from the encounter.

One detail in the Sages’ commentary, however, is strange. The first two rewards are straightforward – a kind of measure for measure. Because he hid his face, his face became radiant. Because he was awestruck by the Burning Bush, he became awe-inspiring (the Israelites were “afraid to come near him”). But what about the third – because he was afraid to look at God, he was rewarded by seeing God? Either it is right or wrong to “look at God.” If it is right, why was Moses afraid? And if it is wrong, why was he later rewarded with something that should not have happened?

One question, according to the Sages, troubled Moses. “Why do the innocent suffer?” Why is there evil in the world? Moses burned with a sense of justice. When he saw a slave beaten, or two people fighting, or young women being roughly treated by shepherds, he intervened. Later, when his mission to Pharaoh initially made things worse for the Israelites, not better, he said to God: “O Lord, why have You brought trouble to this people . . . You have not rescued Your people at all.” Moses belonged to the tradition of Abraham who said to God, “Shall the udge of all the earth not do justice?”

This is the question of questions for biblical faith. Paganism then, like secularism now, had no such doubt. Why should anyone expect justice in the world? The Gods fought. They were indifferent to humankind. The universe was not moral. It was an arena of conflict. The strong win, the weak suffer, and the wise keep far from the fray. If there is no God or (what amounts to the same thing) many Gods, there is no reason to expect justice. The question does not arise.

But for biblical faith, it does. God, the supreme power of powers, is just. Was this not why He chose Abraham in the first place, so that he would teach his children and his household to “keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just”? Why then do the good suffer, while evil men prosper? It is a question that reverberates through the centuries, in Jeremiah, the book of Job, ancient rabbinic Midrash, the kinot (“laments”) of the Middle Ages, and post-Holocaust literature. It was this question that stayed with Moses and gave him no rest. Why are the Israelites enslaved? What wrong did they do to warrant it? Why is the brutal regime of Egypt so strong? Where is the justice in the world?

Pain, harm, suffering are evils. Yet there are circumstances in which we make our peace with them – when we know that they are necessary for some good. To be a parent is to be troubled by the cry of a child in distress, yet we willingly give a child medicine, and put up with its cries, when we know it will cure the illness from which the child is suffering. A surgeon must, at a certain point, treat the patient on the operating table as an object rather than a person, for were it otherwise he could not perform the surgery. A political leader may have to make a decision that will have a disastrous impact on some people – thrown out of work as a result of stringent economic policies, even killed on the battlefield as the consequence of a decision to go to war. One who shrinks from these choices because of a strong sense of compassion may be a good human being but a wholly inadequate leader, because the long term result of a failure to make tough choices may be far worse. There are times when we must silence our most human instincts if we are to bring about good in the long run.

It was just this – my teacher argued – of which Moses was afraid. If he could “look at the face of God,” if he could understand history from the perspective of heaven, he would have to make his peace with the suffering of human beings. He would know why pain here was necessary for gain there; why bad now was essential to good later on. He would understand the ultimate justice of history.

That is what Moses refused to do, because the price of such knowledge is simply too high. He would have understood the course of history from the vantage point of God, but only at the cost of ceasing to be human. How could he still be moved by the cry of slaves, the anguish of the oppressed, if he understood its place in the scheme of things, if he knew that it was necessary in the long run? Such knowledge is divine, not human – and to have it means saying goodbye to our most human instincts: compassion, sympathy, identification with the plight of the innocent, the wronged, the afflicted and oppressed. If to “look at the face of God” is to understand why suffering is sometimes necessary, then Moses was afraid to look – afraid that it would rob him of the one thing he felt in his very bones, the thing that made him the leader he was: his anger at the sight of evil which drove him, time and again, to intervene in the name of justice.

Moses was afraid to “look at the face of God.” But there are two primary names of God in the Bible: Elokim and Hashem (the so-called tetragrammaton, the four-letter name). Elokim, say the Sages, refers to God’s attribute of justice. Hashem refers to His compassion, His mercy, His kindness. At the Burning Bush, Moses was afraid to look at Elokim. His reward, years later, was that he saw “the form of Hashem.” He understood God’s compassion. He did not understand – he was afraid to understand – God’s attribute of justice. He preferred to fight injustice as he saw it, than to accept it by seeing its role in the script of eternity. When it came to kindness and mercy, Moses was inspired by heaven. But when it came to justice, Moses preferred to be human than Divine.

So it was throughout history. Jews, however deeply they believed in God and Divine Providence, never made their peace with what seemed to them to be injustice. Albert Einstein spoke of the “almost fanatical love of justice” that made him “thank his stars” that he belonged to the Jewish tradition.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the book of Job. Job protests the injustice of his fate. His comforters tell him he is wrong. God is just, therefore there is a reason for the tragedies that have befallen him. Throughout the long dialogue we sense that Job is on the brink of blasphemy, that it is his comforters who speak the truth. Yet at the conclusion of the book our expectations are suddenly overturned. God says to Eliphaz and his colleagues: “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken as you ought about Me, as My servant Job has done.”

It is an astonishing volte-face. Better the protests of Job than the acceptance of fate on the part of his friends. Yes, there is an ultimate justice in the affairs of humankind. But we may not aspire to such knowledge – not because we cannot (because, being human, our minds are too limited, our horizons too short) but because we morally must not, for we would then accept evil and not fight against it. God wants us to be human, not Divine. He seeks our protest against evil, our passion for justice, our refusal to come to terms with a world in which the innocent suffer and the evil have power.

It is that refusal – born not out of a lack of faith but precisely the opposite, the conviction that God wants us to be active in pursuit of justice – that drove Abraham, Jeremiah, and Job; that drove successive generations of those inspired by the Bible to fight slavery, tyranny, poverty and disease; that moves us to become God’s partners in the work of redemption. Faced with the opportunity to understand the troubling aspects of history from the vantage-point of God, Moses was afraid to look. He was right, and for this he was rewarded. God does not want us to understand the suffering of the innocent. He wants us to fight for a world in which the innocent no longer suffer. To that, Moses dedicated his life. Can we, his disciples, do less?

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