The Self-Sacrifice Of Moses
Tue, 07/16/2013
Freema Gottlieb
Freema Gottlieb

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:06 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Havdalah: 9:11 p.m.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

When I was an avid 11-year-old reader of English literature, these last words of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” resonated profoundly with me for their sheer nobility. Only much later did the realization dawn that Sydney Carton’s readiness to lay down his life for another was very much in line with the altruism of Christianity’s central story. However romantic the appeal, one might question the justice of someone bearing the burden, and possibly paying the ultimate price, for another’s guilt.

In Va’etchanan we find, through the life of Moses, a precedent for the long biblical tradition of Jewish redemptive self-sacrifice. If we had to depend solely on justice, most of us would not survive.

Forty years have passed since that sacrifice was made at Sinai. Immediately after receiving the Torah, formalizing the “wedding contract,” the Israelites proceed to worship the Golden Calf. According to this metaphor, they are guilty of adultery and under sentence of death. Whether they deserve to die or not, Moses does not care. He will not survive it. “Blot me out of Thy book,” he offers peremptorily [Exodus 33:32].

To counter this maneuver, God is insistent on personal accountability; only those who sinned would be punished. But this emphasis on strict individual deserts is only a smokescreen to provoke Israel’s greatest intercessor to defend them even further.

A Midrash tells us that Moses possessed one last, most effective prayer, called tachanunim, containing the root chen, meaning “grace,” or even “nothingness.” When all else failed, he knew not to depend on his own immense merit but rather to throw himself totally on God’s infinite mercy, thus overriding all harsh Divine judgments. Now he uses it to Israel’s advantage.

Even if the Jewish people have lost favor, he says, for that reason alone God should not only spare them but let some of that chen of deep personal relationship spill over onto them.

What is this chen that proves so attractive? When even God is depicted as so open to relationship, it must be for some spiritual quality. With Moses, misunderstood as a stern lawgiver, it is a total relinquishing of ego that melts all rigorous categories of judgment. Only a “love made out of nothingness” elicits on God’s part a reciprocal response.

Fast-forward 40 years to this week’s reading: Moses is now praying for himself. What does he pray for this time? A total physical immersion in God’s goodness, in the form of the Land. “Let me enter, I pray Thee, into the good Land.” His request is rejected.

A Midrash explains that Moses has the chen, or charm, to override the Divine, but only once. God must either countermand His decree and permit Moses to cross over into the Land or break His ruling for the mass destruction of Israel: “And I have forgiven them according to your word,” taking them instead of Moses on the next lap of the journey. No longer is it him and them to bask in God’s favor. It is him or them. Moses underwrites a choice he made 40 years before.

In the description of his death at the end of the Torah we learn that Moses enjoyed the best type of old age. “His eye was not dimmed, nor his force abated.” Yet we cannot help but feel that if he was not affected physically, then certainly spiritually and mentally he was suffering from the increasing loneliness and depression of growing old.

Only in this week’s portion does he count the cost of a decision that was made 40 years before: When he made his choice, a Midrash explains, he did not realize how hard it would prove to actually carry it out.

It is with a certain bitterness that Moses reiterates in this week’s reading, “You and not me.” To paraphrase Deuteronomy 4:21, “And the Lord transferred His anger from you to me so that I alone am not allowed to cross and enter.” In other words, “God commanded me to teach you the precepts of the Torah, which you will have the great opportunity of putting into practice in the Promised Land, while I shall die in the wilderness. ... You will keep the Torah in a living context, while I shall die.”

Moses is buried in an unknown grave; the element with which his body is united is the wilderness, a state of “nothingness” from which emerges the revelation of Sinai as pure gift.

Paradoxically it is only at the end that Moses, touched by his own mortality, yearns above all for closeness with ordinary folk. And yet, precisely in his grumbles and complaints, he shows a total disregard for “heroic” posturing that is Jewish, human, and possibly most precious of all.

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review

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This is art. This is literature. This is a masterpiece.

The Jewish Week is fortunate to have a scholar of Ms. Gottliebs stature grace your pages. The article is trenchant, wise and tender at the same time. More of her columns would be appreciated.

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