Behaalotekha: Viewing Moses as human paradigm

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Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:1-24

"How are you feeling?" asks a popular poster illustrated with 30 cartoon characters, each drawn to represent a mood: exhausted, confused, ecstatic, guilty, angry, hysterical, frustrated, sad, confident, embarrassed, disgusted, etc. One day, as a teenager was leaving my office, she pointed to the poster and said, "That's how I feel all the time."

When we consider the life of Moses, the central character in this week's Torah portion, Behaalotekha, we find a very human individual, one who is subject to the wide variety of moods most of us experience.

For example, in this week's portion, Moses is discouraged. The Israelites complain about the poor portions of insipid manna they receive in the desert: "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (Numbers 11:4-6).

Despairing of ever finding a way to deal with the Israelites' whining and complaining, Moses says, "I cannot carry the weight of this people all by myself, for it is too much for me" (Numbers 11:14). Moses begs God to kill him to avoid facing the continuing complaints. Instead of acceding to Moses'wishes, God commands him to gather an assembly of 70 to help him govern.

Elsewhere, Moses reveals his rage when he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who beat an Israelite (Exodus 2:11-12). He demonstrates his anger again when he descends from Mt. Sinai and sees the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. Moses becomes so enraged that he hurls the Tablets of the Law and shatters them at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19). Nevertheless, Moses is also portrayed as compassionate when he asks God to pardon this "stiff-necked people" (Exodus34:8).

On another occasion, Moses expresses self-doubt, asking: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (Exodus 3:11). When Moses tells God, "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10), Moses reveals his feelings of low self-esteem and his fear that he would not succeed. After Moses reluctantly agrees to accept God's assignment, he despairs, asking: "Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, it has gone worse with this people" (Exodus 5:23).

Conversely, Moses is quite confident when he confronts Pharaoh and demands that he free the Israelites and when he tries to reassure the Israelites of the forthcoming redemption: "Have no fear! Standby, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today" (Exodus 14:13).

A legend written about Moses' dispositions points to the many-sided personality and the different moods within each individual: A king wishes to meet Moses, who he had heard was a wise and admirable leader. Moses, busy leading the Israelites through the desert, could not accept the king's invitation to visit. The king sends his painters to capture Moses' likeness instead.

When they return, he shows the painting to his advisers and asks them what kind of man they thought Moses to be. They report that based on the painting, he is wicked, greedy, proud, self-seeking and dishonest. The king is puzzled and thinks that either the painters don't know how to paint or he can't trust his advisers for an accurate evaluation.

The king sets out to meet Moses. Finding him exactly as he believed him to be portrayed, the king asks Moses to explain the discrepancy between his reputation and the interpretation of the painting. Moses replies that the king's advisers are correct. "That is what I was made of," he answers. "I fought against those characteristics and triumphed; that is how I became what I am and that is why I have been honored throughout the world." (Adapted from a story by Israel Lifshitz in a commentary titled Tiferet Yisrael.)

Carl Jung once wrote, "Every psychological extreme secretly contains its own opposite, or stands in some sort of intimate and essential relation to it."Moses embodies this statement. He is both humble and arrogant, confident and frightened, apprehensive and certain, harsh and compassionate. The Bible goes to great lengths to portray the great Moses as being very human. Moses' moodswings and personality traits make us mindful that our frame of mind, too, is subject to great variability and is not necessarily a flaw, but rather a very human characteristic.