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August 4, 2022 10:58 am

The Lesson of Moses: Stay Optimistic and Don’t Give Up

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659), by Rembrandt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Book of Devarim, the last book of the Torah, is dominated by the personality of Moses, even more than the previous three books. It includes a complete re-statement and reformulation of the laws issued on Sinai, and also restates the struggles that Moses had, both with the people and with God.

Moses is not sparing in his criticism of their repeated complaints and rebellions. As he gets to the end of the book, he says that he knows that many of them will abandon the Covenant. Yet despite Moses’ realization that human nature is fragile, he remains remarkably optimistic.

This week he says, “I have commanded the judges of the people, that they should listen to you when there is disagreement, that they should judge justly between you and the stranger. Not to be biased in judgment or favor of the little person or the big one. Not to be frightened of other people, because justice is God’s”( Deuteronomy Chapter 1:16 & 17).

What does that mean, that justice is God’s? Isn’t justice our responsibility? But as humans, we usually get it wrong. We need an external standard of morality.

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This is a very important civil ethical principle in the Torah. Having a fair system of justice requires giving a fair hearing to both sides. This includes the stranger, the outsider, and all members of society. The judges must be fair — following the law, not personal sentiment. And the way to achieve this is by accepting certain standards as immutable regardless of one’s preferences.

But something seems missing here. One can understand not favoring the rich and the powerful. But why does the Torah here say nothing about the poor? After all, the Torah keeps repeating our obligations to the poor, the widow, and the orphan. But the law is the law, regardless of one’s bank balance or power. If a poor person steals to feed his family, he has still stolen and must be found guilty. But when it comes to punishment, then the judge has leeway to consider his difficult circumstances. And what is more, the judge will have a religious obligation to help that poor person and the family.

This is why the Torah uses two words together, Mishpat and Tsedek. Mishpat is the law. It should be blind, like the Statue of Justice in front of the Supreme Court, with a blindfold over her face. But in addition, there is the moral and religious aspect, Tsedek — doing the right thing on a personal level.

We see too many examples of people doing what they claim is the right thing, yet murdering, oppressing others, using the law as a political tool, and betraying moral values. Religious hooligans, nationalist bullies, and leaders who fail to stand up and condemn evil. It is so depressing. Occasionally Moses despairs and gets frustrated and angry. But he never gives up.

From Moses, we learn to persevere, regardless of the mess around us. Despite all his criticism of the Israelites, he does not lose hope, and neither should we. This imagery of Moses as the trustful shepherd, the Ra’ayh MeHemnah is why we regard him primarily as our teacher rather than as a messiah.

And that is the role of the rabbi, too. The law of the Torah is the law, and must be upheld. But one can still consider personal circumstances when applying it to individuals and individual cases.

Surprisingly, in Henry Kissinger’s latest book about the world leaders he admired, he says the common feature of the leaders he respected is a religious commitment, vision, and optimism. The very same could apply to Moses.

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently living in New York.

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