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Moses Is Missing

If Shavuot celebrates the giving of the laws at Mount Sinai, why doesn’t the man who delivered those laws play a larger role?

Stuart Halpern
May 25, 2023
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia

Cheesecake has never been my jam.

For me, Shavuot has always been more about the Bible than blintzes, more Mount Sinai than milk products. But even for those possessing more lactose tolerance than myself, there’s a glaring absence in our shared celebration of the holiday: Moses.

For a festival so centered on celebrating the giving of the law, you would think the lawgiver would take center stage. But you would be mistaken. There’s no paean to the defeater of Pharaoh, no special blessing celebrating the bearer of the tablets.

A peek into the Torah portion of Yitro (Jethro), from which we read over the holiday, might provide a clue as to why.

Right before the fire-and-brimstone revelation on the mountaintop, Moses receives a visit from his father-in-law, Yitro. After an emotional catch-up with him and Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, Yitro—fulfilling the ancient practice of in-laws since time immemorial—decides to stick around for a while and offer unsolicited advice.

“You seem tired,” he says to Moses. “Is it really such a good idea to be standing and answering legal questions all day? Why not appoint some minor judges and delegate to them some judicial authority?”

Moses takes the advice and sets up a multitiered system of judges.

While traditional Jewish thought has seen this exchange as positive, both a Puritan minister and a renowned 19th-century German rabbi actually saw this episode as negatively reflecting Moses’ character.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728)—grandson of Massachusetts Bay Colony spiritual leaders Richard Mather and John Cotton, and son of Harvard President Increase Mather—was undoubtedly a polymath. An accomplished scientist and theologian whose interests included experimenting with plant hybridization, investigating accused witches, and ministering to convicted pirates, Mather owned the largest private library in the colonies and authored approximately 400 books. One of those tomes, his magisterial Biblia Americana, was so wordy and immense it never found a publisher during his lifetime and was only recently published in a multivolume edition by Mohr Siebeck. In it, Mather draws upon his vast learning of both Jewish and gentile biblical commentaries. And he left Moses, the renowned liberator, legislator, and leader, looking like a pushover.

In the volume’s commentary on the Book of Numbers, Mather wonders why exactly Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, spoke ill of Moses “for having taken a Cushite woman,” as Numbers chapter 12, in a notoriously nebulous description, recounts. Citing approvingly the English Bishop Simon Patrick’s commentary, Mather writes:

Probably, they were Jealous of Moses’s being too much ruled by his Wife & by her Relations; for it was by her Fathers Advice that he made the Judges, mention’d in the eighteenth of Exodus [in the Torah portion of Yitro]. And perhaps they imagined, that she and Hobab, had an hand [sic] in choosing the Elders lately made; which made the Story in the foregoing Chapter connected unto This. It is evident those Elders were nominated, without consulting either Aaron, or Miriam, about it. These taking themselves to be neglected, in so great an Alteration made of the Government, without their Advice, were very Angry. But they durst not charge Moses directly, with his neglect of them, they fall upon his Wife; whom in scorn they call, A Cushite, or Arabian woman.

Per Mather, it seemed perfectly reasonable for Miriam and Aaron to vent, amid the Israelites’ desert wanderings, that, appearances to the contrary, it was not Moses whose authoritative voice guided the Israelites and determined its political policy. His wife, Tzipporah, and her father, Yitro (also called Hobab), determined judicial hierarchy. Moses’ wife and father-in-law, to put it simply, wore the bossy pants. And Moses’ brother and sister couldn’t stand their younger brother getting pushed around by them. Thus, the gossip behind Moses’ back.

Strikingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), whose Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy inspired much of contemporary modern Orthodoxy, adopted a similar interpretive stance with regards to Moses’ backbone, or lack thereof. In the classic Isaac Levy translation from the German original, Hirsch takes Moses’ acceptance of Jethro’s judicial advice to appoint a system of lower court judges as an indictment of Moses’ legislative capabilities.

So little was Moses in himself a legislative genius, he had so little talent for organising [sic], that he had to learn the very first elements of state organization from his father-in-law. The man who tired himself out to utter exhaustion and to whom of himself did not occur to arrange this or some similar simple solution, equally beneficial to himself and his people; the man to whom it was necessary to have a Jethro to suggest this obvious device; that man could never have given the People constitution and laws out of his own head; that man was only, and indeed just because of this the best and most faithful instrument of God!

To Hirsch, too, Moses lacked natural legal and leadership talent. Writing amid the rise of biblical criticism and an intellectual milieu that considered human hands as having shaped the Torah, however, left Hirsch considering Moses’ deficiencies to be to his credit not his detriment. Moses might have personally been a pushover, Hirsch is essentially arguing, but his lack of managerial talents made him the ideal vessel for the divine end product, the faithfully conveyed instruction manual that is the Bible.

Though the Judeo-Christian perception of Moses largely ignored Mather’s and Hirsch’s lamented leadership skills, the Bible itself does tell us that Moses was the humblest man who ever lived. His struggle coercing, guiding, rebuking, and judging his flock are clear from four out of the five books of the Torah. And of course, his passing away before his people cross into the Promised Land, is, per the Bible itself, a reflection of imperfection.

Whether or not a more strategically adept and legally trained Moses might have been more successful we will never know. Maybe.

But what we do know what we are left with is a Moses who saw in law an opportunity for humility. And that, perhaps, is the real meaning of Shavuot: By not focusing our festivities on Moses, Jewish tradition, oddly, asks us to be a little bit more like him. We are instructed to approach the holiday not with the bangs of hero worship but with the whispers of true and intimate faith. Being our best and most faithful selves, to borrow Rabbi Hirsch’s phrasing, means approaching the Torah with the mentality that it’s not about us. Just like Moses when he accepted Jethro’s advice, we, too, are asked, each Shavuot anew, to share the wealth of God’s creation and His laws. In between bites of delectable dairy products, we’re led to reflect on Moses’ absence and remember that the point of the holiday is to give others the opportunity to learn and to teach. That, even I agree, is worth chewing on.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.