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The concluding verses of Torah suggest that no other prophet compares to Moshe, not only in his prophetic prowess, but also in all of the signs and wonders he wrought. What, though, was so exceptional about Moshe's miracle-making? Did not other prophets perform similar feats?1 Commentators differ in their understanding of what made Moshe's miracles unique: [See Moshe's Epitaph – Signs and Wonders and Miracles for more.]
- Abundance – Ramban, Ralbag and Shadal assert that Moshe's miracles were unparalleled due to their sheer numbers, duration, and/or the area which they affected.
- Wide audience – R"Y Bekhor Shor and Rambam suggest, instead, that Moshe's wonders surpassed those of others because they were viewed by a wider audience. While most prophets performed miracles for individuals or a small portion of the nation, Moshe's were known to all of the Children of Israel as well as the surrounding nations
- Instantaneous – Abarbanel explains that in contrast to other prophets, Moshe could bring miracles without needing to first pray. Moshe's face to face connection enabled a direct hotline to Hashem and instantaneous implementation.
- Not unique – Seforno uniquely suggests that the verse is saying only that Moshe's prophetic powers were singular, but not that his miracle making was superior to others.
Standing up for Justice
Commentators disagree as to whether it is legitimate to maintain that Moshe could have ever misunderstood Hashem. After all, if a prophet can make a mistake and misinterpret Hashem's words, how can he be trusted to correctly transmit Hashem's messages?
- Moshe could have misunderstood Hashem – Several sources assert that it is possible that, on occasion, Moshe erred in understanding Hashem:
- Korach's rebellion – Both R. Chananel2 and Seforno suggest that Moshe misunderstood Hashem's statement "הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם" (Bemidbar 16:21) to mean that Hashem intended to wipe out the entire nation, when Hashem really was referring only to the congregation of Korach.3 See Dialogue with the Divine During Korach's Rebellion for discussion and additional sources.
- The spies – Seforno suggests that Moshe similarly misunderstood Hashem in the aftermath of the spies' report.4 When Hashem said, "אַכֶּנּוּ בַדֶּבֶר" (Bemidbar 14:12), he thought that Hashem planned to exterminate the nation all at once.5 Hashem, though, had really meant that he planned to destroy the nation slowly, over forty years in the Wilderness.
- Moshe could not have misunderstood Hashem – R. Mubashir HaLevi,6 and Ramban7 vehemently argue against the possibility that Moshe could err in understanding Hashem.8
Some exegetes suggest that Moshe exhibited certain weaknesses as an administrator, while others think that saying so borders on the blasphemous:
- Yitro's Advice (Shemot 18) – When Yitro sees the nation standing online to await Moshe's judgment, he suggests that Moshe delegate some of his responsibilities to lighten the load. Yitro's advice seems like such an obvious and simple solution that one cannot help but wonder: How could it be that Moshe, the greatest of all men and in possession of a direct line to Hashem, needed Yitro's help to figure this out?
- Ralbag suggests that due to Moshe's closeness to Hashem, he was indeed deficient in civic leadership.
- Abarbanel strongly disagrees, claiming that it is impossible that Moshe was flawed in this regard.
- Moshe and Mei Merivah.(Bemidbar 20) – Though many suggest that Moshe's sin at Mei Merivah related to the realm of man and God, others suggest that the problem was one of faulty leadership.
- See Minchah Belulah who asserts that in "fleeing" to the Tent of Meeting, Moshe betrayed a fear of the nation and an inability to take initiative and rebuke them on his own.
- Petition of the Two and a Half Tribes (Bemidbar 32) – Moshe initially responds negatively to the tribes' request to settle the eastern bank of the Jordan, chastising them for leaving the burden of fighting to the rest of the nation. Immediately thereafter, Reuven and Gad express their willingness not just to fight, but even to lead the nation in battle, whereupon Moshe agrees to their original demands. What leads to the about-face both on the part of the tribes and on the part of Moshe? Did the tribes change their stance only due to Moshe's condemnation, or had they always planned to take part in the Conquest? Might Moshe have misunderstood their intent?
- Moshe misjudges – Abarbanel maintains that Moshe misunderstood the tribes' request and wrongly assumed that they did not want to participate in the Canaanite campaign when they had meant to all along.9
- Moshe judges correctly – Akeidat Yitzchak, in contrast, justifies Moshe's angry reaction, opining that Moshe correctly read the tribes' petition and that it really was problematic both on the interpersonal level (as the tribes did not initially intend to join their brethren in the Conquest), and in relation to Hashem (as they rejected His Promised Land.) In face of Moshe's anger, the tribes revise their proposition and only then does Moshe agree.
- Bemidbar 11
RambamIn several places in Torah, commentators question Moshe's behavior and suggest that he might have sinned, even if this is not explicit in the text:
- Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian (Shemot 2) - Many laud Moshe for killing the Egyptian taskmaster and view him as championing the cause of justice. Others, though, question whether his response was not overly harsh and if Moshe was justified in taking the law into his own hands:
- Justified – The majority of commentators justify Moshe's actions by suggesting either that in killing the taskmaster Moshe was actively saving a life (Shemot Rabbah) or that the Egyptian was guilty of a capital crime, having committed adultery with the slain Hebrew's wife (Tanchuma). R. D"Z Hoffman, instead, argues that the trampling of human rights in Egypt was so massive that legal norms did not apply.
- Unjustified – Midrash Petirat Moshe finds Moshe's deed blameworthy and suggests that he was even punished as a result.10
- Unintentional – R. Saadia Gaon charts a middle ground, suggesting that Moshe's action was indeed problematic, but unintentional. He had meant only to harm the Egyptian, not to kill him.
- Moshe at the Malon (Shemot 4) – Hashem's attempt to kill Moshe (or perhaps his son) during the incident at the inn implies that there had been some serious transgression. Yet, there is no explicit mention of any wrongdoing in the text. Moreover, attributing a crime to Moshe implies that Hashem had chosen an unworthy messenger! How, then, is the story to be understood? Is it a tale of sin and punishment or something else?
- Sinned in not circumcising his son – Many Tannaitic sources. working backwards from the circumcision at the story's conclusion, suggest that Moshe must have been lax in circumcising his son. While , Yerushalmi Nedarim and Shemot Rabbah attempt to minimize Moshe's guilt by explaining that there was merely a slight delay due to the journey, R. Elazar HaModai tries to find a crime more befitting Hashem's harsh response, and proposes that Moshe has sealed a pact with Yitro that one of his sons would never be circumcised.
- Sinned in delaying his mission – Rashbam connects the sin to the larger context of the story and the national mission upon which Moshe was embarking. He suggests that Moshe sinned in bringing his family to Egypt as this caused him to tarry and delay the redemption of Israel.11
- Miscalculation – Ibn Ezra implies that Moshe did not so much sin as make an error in judgment. As bringing Moshe's family to Egypt might have demoralized the nation,12 Hashem told Moshe to circumcise his son enroute so as to ensure that the family remain behind.
- No sin – Ibn Kaspi goes further to suggest that Moshe did not err at all. Moshe's anxiety at having to confront Paroh and warn him of his son's impending death is what made Moshe gravely ill.
- Moshe's Misstep and Mei Merivah (Bemidbar 20) – In this story Hashem explicitly punishes Moshe (and Aharon), telling them "לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל". It is not at all clear, however, what specific action constituted the sin, and why this error was so grievous that it resulted in the brothers being refused entry into the Land.
- Commentators, thus, mine almost every word of the text, raising numerous possible sins, including: lack of faith (Rashbam and Seforno),13 desecration of Hashem's name (R. Chananel, Rashi, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor),14 excessive anger (Rambam and Ibn Kaspi),15 and faulty leadership (Minchah Belulah).16
- Ralbag and Abarbanel also raise the possibility that Moshe did not sin at all in this episode and that his being denied entry was either collective punishment for sins of the nation, or due to to previous misdeeds.
Several commentators have faulted Moshe for unwarranted anger:
- Explicit cases – The Torah explicitly notes Moshe's wrath in three places:17 Shemot 16:20 (after the nation leaves over from the manna), Vayikra 10:16 (when Aharon's sons burn the goat of the sin-offering), and Bemidbar 31:14 (when the officers leave the women alive in the war with Midyan).
- Numerous Rabbinic sources criticize Moshe for this loss of control and say that Moshe's anger caused him to forget either the Halakhah or the need to convey it to the people – see Sifra, Sifre Bemidbar, Bavli Pesachim, Vayikra Rabbah.
- However, Ralbag excuses such outbursts by saying that Moshe was so spiritual that he was angered even by what appeared to be slight deviations from Halakhah.18
- Non explicit cases – There are a number of additional cases where some commentators claim that Moshe's temper got the better of him:
- Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian – R" Y Bekhor Shor attributes Moshe's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster in Shemot 2 to his anger boiling over out of mercy for his brethren, rather than to a strict sense of law and order. [It is not clear, though, if he necessarily views this as a flaw.]
- Breaking the tablets – Ramban attributes Moshe's breaking of the tablets to a loss of control upon seeing the nation sin with the Calf. Moshe was so upset that he could not hold back19 and smashed the tablets.20
- Moshe and Mei Merivah – Rambam and Ibn Kaspi assert that Moshe's sin at Mei Merivah was his excessive anger, leading him to inappropriately refer to he nation as "rebels" and to defy God's instructions by hitting the rock (Bemidbar 20:10-11).21
- Bemidbar 32.
The three verses of Shemot 4:10, 6:12, and 6:30 describe Moshe's speech impediment using the terms of "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן" and "עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם". Exegetes debate whether or not this disability was of a physical nature, and why Hashem would choose a disabled messenger to be His spokesman. See Moshe's Speech Impediment.
- Physical disability – According to Shemot Rabbah, R. Chananel and R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, Moshe's speech impediment was of a physical nature and involved difficulties in letter pronunciation or stuttering. The Ran
states that Hashem intentionally chose a leader who was not a charismatic speaker to insure that all would recognize that the miracles of the Exodus were brought about not by oratorical talents but rather by Hashem's will.22
- Non-physical disability – Rashbam deems it impossible that Hashem would elect to transmit the Torah through a stutterer, leading him to posit that Moshe's challenge was an inability to speak Egyptian well.23 Lekach Tov and Ralbag more simply suggest that Moshe was not a gifted orator and incapable of ordering his speech in a clear and organized manner. Ralbag explains that this was a result of Moshe's high spiritual level which led him to have difficulties in mundane dealings with humans.24
Errors in Judgment
Commentators disagree as to whether this happened:
- Moshe could have made errors of judgment – see Mystery at the Malon, the Spies.
- Moshe did not make errors of judgment –
Journey to Belief
Was Moshe's Son Uncircumcised and Why?
- See the various approaches in Mystery at the Malon
Upbringing, Marriage and Family Life
Commentators divide in how they views Moshe's birth and early years, with some presenting these as being filled with miracles and others seeing them in a more natural light.