“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Moses required solitude, even though the people resented it

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Numbers 1:1–4:20

At this point in the Hebrew calendar, the Torah describes the Jewish people wandering in the wilderness. Having experienced both the redemptive parting of the Sea of Reeds and the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) continues the narrative and ultimately highlights the next 38 years of their journey through the desert.

The Israelites have separated themselves from their prior lives of bondage in Egypt. They now travel together as a collective body, a singular, solitary unit as they make their way through the crucible of Sinai toward the Promised Land. They are largely isolated, set apart from others while on their mission to become a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, often separates himself from others as well. He is frequently depicted as a man who acts in singular, solitary ways as part of his own mission — to serve as God’s surrogate and messenger.

More than any other figure in the Torah (with the possible exception of Abraham), Moses is of absolute import to the unfolding destiny of the people of Israel. It is Moses who transmits God’s ultimatum to Pharaoh, Moses who directs the Israelites through the desert, Moses who brings his community to the cusp of the Promised Land.

At several of the most important moments of his own life, Moses is alone.

After he kills an Egyptian taskmaster and flees to the land of Midian, Moses becomes a shepherd for Jethro, his father-in-law. One day Moses leads the flock “far away into the desert.” (Exodus 3:1) It is there, by himself on Mount Horeb, that Moses encounters the voice of God in a burning bush.

Moses initially resists the divine call to be God’s messenger, to serve as a conduit for God’s redemption of the Jewish people. Part of his hesitation is certainly fear of confronting the Egyptian god-king. Part of it is also humility, as when Moses says to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

But perhaps a hidden component of his resistance to the Divine charge is a sense that his role as prophetic leader will ultimately separate — and at times alienate — him from his people.

Following the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses guides them as they trek through the wilderness of Sinai. It is in this desolate environment that Moses again meets God. Three months after his people’s release from slavery, Moses ascends Mount Sinai alone.

At several of the most important moments of his own life, Moses is alone.

There God tells him what he is to say to the assembled tribes so they can prepare for the great theophany, God’s communication using Moses as a mediator of the eternal covenant with Israel. God appears on the mountain amid thunder and lightning, but it is Moses who conveys God’s words and will.

After the revelation at Sinai is over, God tells Moses to ascend the mountain once more, by himself, to receive the stone tablets on which the commandments are inscribed. Moses places Aaron in charge of the community, then goes up to the mountain for “40 days and 40 nights.” (Exodus 21:18)

Moses spends a significant amount of time in seclusion, isolated and often in communion with God. His long periods of separation from his people contribute to challenges to his leadership as well as to open rebellion; Moses is viewed by many of the Israelites with suspicion, resentment and contempt.

It is ambiguous as to how this affects the inner life of Moses. Does he accept his solitude as a necessary feature of his leadership? Or is he pained by it, experiencing his special and solitary existence not as a Divine gift but as a diabolical curse. Is Moses lonely? The Torah doesn’t tell us.

At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites stand poised to enter the Promised Land. Moses is an old man on the verge of death. He offers his final blessings to his people, then ascends to the top of Mount Nebo, where Moses is granted a vision of the land he will never set foot on.

He dies alone, his burial place unmarked and unknown.

Religious men and women have known for millennia about the powerful role that solitude can play in our inner development. Individuals of diverse faith traditions went on solitary retreats and pilgrimages. Some, like the Essenes or the early Christian desert fathers, lived alone in caves and barren cells. Others, like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, developed their own ritualized practices of intense self-seclusion.

Many of the great and revolutionary spiritual leaders, such as the Buddha and the Ba’al Shem Tov, first removed themselves from the world before returning to it to share what had been revealed to them. What links all of these figures is not theology or worldview but a common understanding that solitude can promote insight and transformation.

This is what happened to our ancestors, and it is a lesson for all of us in this confusing, crowded and hyperconnected world.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."