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Book Review // Moses: A Human Life

Moses: A Human Life
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg
Yale University Press
2016, pp. 240 pages

What Makes Moses Human

By Linda Tucker

“I am compelled to complete the biblical act of creation: to trace Moses’ birth into a world of genocide, his infancy with two mothers, his youth as an Egyptian prince, his calling by God into a life in which he is to speak for God to the Israelites and for the Israelites to God,” says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg of her latest book Moses: A Human Life. Zornberg, who has gained world acclaim for her writing and teaching of biblical commentary, wants to show us what it is that makes the life of the towering figure of Moses a human one.

Using various literary sources (such as Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, George Elliot and Franz Kafka), biblical commentators (such as Rashi) and rabbinic and midrashic narratives, Gottlieb shows us a multifaceted Moses: He is a man whose sense of identity is fraught with ambiguity and insecurity, and he is also a man worthy of leading a nation to greatness.

Zornberg shines a light on the importance of speech in Moses’ life. “The greatness of Moses was always involved with language. It is only in his identity as speaker for the sake of Israel that he can speak at all,” says Zornberg. “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” says Moses (Ex.4:10). “I am of uncircumsized lips.”

In a very human way, Moses asks an essential question: Who am I? How does my identity qualify me to extract the Israelites from Egypt? When Moses speaks to God, it is the first time a human being addresses God with the question, Why? Why did God do evil to the Egyptians that forced Pharoah to do evil to the people? “The voice of Moses represents areas of human experience never before plumbed,” says Zornberg. “Asking why, constitutes a human being.”

Words are the key to Moses’ greatness. His singular ability to speak both in God’s name and in the name of “vulnerable flesh and blood” constitutes his mission: He is the mediator between the divine and the human. Getting his message to the people has become a difficult task. But Moses’ voice, in all its fragility, is wanted by God: “God tells Moses that his voice is necessary, in all its inadequacy, to speak to the people, as well as for them. No matter what language he speaks, the community of Israel needs his voice,” says Zornberg. Language is what constitutes a human being. “His voice must be faithful to itself, not a recording of divine words. ‘They must hear your voice,’ says God.”

Zornberg’s explanation of Moses and the Golden Calf is impressive: She says that Moses had become a sort of idol for the people; they worshipped his ideas and adored him. “So great,” she says, “is the human desire to adore.” When the people see that Moses isn’t returning from the mountaintop, they feel they are being abandoned. For them, Moses represents divinity, and in his absence they have to find a substitute—hence, the Golden Calf. God is furious about the Golden Calf, but Moses pleads for his people. God tells him that the people need human interpretation of God’s word, and Moses understands that the fate of the world depends on him. So when Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets, he “joins his soul with his people and also with God.” “The skin of his face was radiating with light from speaking with Him (Deut 34.29). The people can see his radiance. He must teach them for their own sake. Thus he becomes Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher.” Zornberg says: “When he is speaking in his own voice—to God, his people, to the Egyptians, and to himself—there is clearly a self, a subjectivity at work, which is, with all its difference, a recognizable human subjectivity.”

We feel Moses’ isolation when he speaks to God about the burden he feels involving his people’s lack of understanding—and his troubled relationship with them. He asks God why he’s been given this burden; he speaks to the people about this burden and appeals to them to help him out of his isolation. But they don’t hear. Moses becomes human when he expresses his sadness in not being allowed to enter the Promised Land, not being able to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He speaks to the people in a more human way, not commanding, not reproaching, not exhorting. When he describes his humiliation, he stammers. He doesn’t have control over his speech and so the people do not understand. “The main issue,” says Zornberg, “is not God’s decree but the fraught relations between Moses and his people.” Moses feels a terrible disappointment when the people don’t intercede on his behalf.

However, says Zornberg, “instead of a passion to cross over the Jordan, Moses is now possessed of a new passion—to reach across to his people, before he dies.” Moses speaks to his people not as a messenger of God, but as one human to another. “At the end of a life conveying God’s word to them and of speaking on their behalf to God, he addresses them as a storyteller, as a poet.” This time, the people finally listen to him. In Deuteronomy, Moses writes of his own death. “The man who has always spoken for Israel now speaks for his personal self in a way that stirs the depths in those who hear him,” says Zornberg. “In his incompleted humanity, he comes to represent the yet-attained but attainable messianic future.”

Zornberg achieves what she set out to do: She brings us a Moses who, with his flawed speech and insecure relationship with the Israelites, still brings the divine words to a people in need of spiritual direction. With the help of numerous outside commentators who have different views on Moses’ life, she brings us new insights into one of the Bible’s—and Judaism’s—greatest figures.

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