Our Torah goes by a number of aliases: Eitz Chayim (Tree of Life), Pentateuch (Greek for “Five Books”), Torah she’bi’ktav (The Written Instruction) …but one that has always seemed to stick out to me is The Five Books of Moses.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Moses seems to be a great guy and everything – he’s a prophet, he helped to free the Israelites from slavery and put up with their grumbling for forty years in the wilderness – but he’s also a reluctant and flawed leader. Why would our foundational and [divinely] inspired text be named after a man so inherently human? What made Moses so great?
Now that our weekly readings have continued into the Book of Numbers, we’ve had example after example of imperfection of humanity. Genesis describes our foremothers and forefathers who were prone to fits of doubt, competitiveness, anger, and greed. Exodus tells the story of a group of people who never appreciated what they had, only ever thinking of satisfying their baser needs where the grass might be greener. Leviticus gives law after law, boundary after boundary, desperately trying to keep our ancestors on the right path to becoming God’s Kingdom of Priests. Even in this week’s portion, B’haalot’cha, the people kvetch about the lack of meat in their diet, despite receiving the daily miracle of mana to sustain them throughout their long journey. Week after week, we struggle with a text that reminds us: “you are imperfect, your ancestors were imperfect, humanity will forever be imperfect.”
Also, in this week’s portion are three mini-Episodes, each providing an insight into Moses’ equally flawed character. First, after wondering if the Israelites will ever be satisfied with God’s miracles and provisions, Moses gathers seventy elders from the community and puts upon them the Ruach/spirit that enables them to prophesize. Next, when two of the seventy were seemingly left to their own newly prophetic devices, Joshua (Moses’ second in command) calls him out in a jealous rage, but Moses simply responds, “If only all of Adonai’s people were prophets.” Third, Moses’ siblings – Aaron and Miriam – speak against Moses and his special treatment by God. Miriam is punished with skin disease and exiled from the camp, but Moses intercedes and pleads with God to heal her and allow her to return.
Just in these few chapters, we see Moses’ inability to take command and control of the people whom he leads. And yet, his response to all this adversity is what sets him apart from this herd. When the people are unsatisfied with God’s gifts, he gives them more. When his officers worry that the people have too much power, he dreams of a world where everyone has a direct and personal connection with God. When his own family takes him and his privilege for granted, he uses his position to care for them. Just in these three examples we see that Moses is different not because of his relationship with God, but because of his relationship with people. Even when, maybe even especially when, the people move against him, Moses acts for the people.
In short: Ha-ish Moshe anav m’od, Moses was a very humble man (Numbers 12:3).
No other person in the Torah or the rest of the TaNaCh, is described as humble. We have plenty of prophets, plenty of leaders – elders, judges, and kings. But none of them are described as humble; only Moses, the man who graciously lends his name to our Torah.
What does this tell us about Torah itself?
That even though we put our leaders, learnings, and texts on exceedingly high pedestals, we must remember that perfection is an unrealistic ideal. We must remember that each of us are flawed, and sometimes forget what’s most important. We must remember that the things that last, the things that have the most to teach us, are the things that tell us to get out of our own way and instead send us back to each other.
Moses was a wonderfully imperfect leader, just as Torah is a wonderfully imperfect text. Through both example and deed, they teach us that the most important part of our lives isn’t power, fame, or fortune. Rather the most important part of our journeys is the person on either side of us. And all the rest is commentary.