Peshat and Beyond: The Emergence of A Reluctant Leader

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Batya Hefter

This article traces the development of Moses from a hesitant and resistant individual to the leader and redeemer of the Jewish People. In a previous Lehrhaus piece, I showed how the straightforward meaning of the narrative can be interiorized to describe a process which takes place within human beings, allowing the biblical text to resonate with deeper psychological, spiritual, and theological significance. I call this method Peshat and Beyond.” I now propose to do the same for the story of Moses. Let us begin with the narrative.

Peshat: The Riddle of Moses’ Resistance

The second chapter of Exodus begins with the story of a privileged prince. Young Moses ventures out from the secure environment of Pharaoh’s palace to encounter his people: “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he noticed an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brothers.  And he looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12-13).

The following day, seeing two Hebrews fighting, he intervenes again reproachfully, “Wicked one, why do you smite your fellow?” Pharaoh, hearing of Moses’ actions, wants to kill him, so Moses flees to the land of Midian. Upon his arrival, he sees Jethro’s daughters being harassed by local shepherds. Once again, he does not stand idly by, but delivers the women from their oppressors. These three episodes, told in rapid succession, show Moses as a character consistently incensed by injustice and moved to action.

Given this portrait of Moses as a man of compassion for the downtrodden who rises up to fight in their defense, we wonder why he refuses to accept God’s mission to free his enslaved brothers.

In Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, he refuses to take on his assigned mission no less than five times (Exodus 3:1-4:17). He pleads verbal incompetence, claiming to be “slow of speech and of a slow tongue,” and beseeches God to send someone else. Angered by Moses’ resistance, God eventually responds by sending Aaron, his brother, to be his partner:

And he shall be your spokesman to the people: and he shall be to you instead of a mouth, and you shall be to him instead of God…And the Lord said to Aaron, Go to the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words. (Exodus 4:16; 27-28)

The purpose of the meeting of the brothers seems clear. Moses’ resistance is softened when his brother, Aaron, a gifted orator, is sent to support him. A partnership is forged, and together, the brothers embark on God’s mission. If we understand Moses’ hesitation at face value, this interpretation is sufficient. But perhaps, as the rabbis suggest, there is a deeper reason for Moses’ resistance, which is in turn illuminated by his partnership with Aaron.  

Beyond: The Midrashic Move

In the first stage of “beyond,” the midrash deepens the peshat narrative by adding an additional layer of symbolic meaning:

Go to meet Moses… and he met him at the mount of God and kissed him (Exodus 4:27). As it is written, “Loving-kindness and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalms 85:11). “Loving-kindness ” – this refers to Aaron, as it says, “And to Levi he said, Let your tumim and your urim be with your pious one…” (Deuteronomy 33:8). “Truth,” this refers to Moses, as it says, “In all of my house he is truthful” (Numbers 12). That is what is meant by “loving-kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace kissed.” Righteousness is Moses… Peace is Aaron. (Tanhuma, Exodus 28; translation mine)

The midrash transforms the fraternal greeting into a cosmic encounter, showing that the significance of the meeting is not merely historical. Loving-kindness, truth, righteousness, and peace are universal concepts that go beyond the limits of a specific point in time. By saying that Moses represents truth and Aaron represents loving-kindness, the Tanhuma shifts the encounter from a particular instance in time. Instead, the brothers’ meeting describes two divergent ways of being in the world. Moses and Aaron’s reunion becomes a collision between two ideas, two tendencies; the midrash thus imbues it with eternal relevance.

Further Beyond: Shifting from the Symbolic to the Theological

After describing Moses’ predisposition for resistance and attributing to it symbolic meaning of truth, we now extend this picture to include a theological layer, moving beyond human characteristics to a dynamic within God. This bold step is taken by Mei ha-Shiloah, Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854), founder of the Ishbitz-Radzyn dynasty, who juxtaposes the Midrash Tanhuma quoted above with another midrash describing God’s indecision prior to the creation of the world. The personifications of the characteristics of loving-kindness, truth, righteousness, and peace participate in a celestial debate weighing the pros and cons of creation, with God presiding:

When the world was being created, the Holy One blessed be He asked loving-kindness [if the world should be created]. [Loving-kindness] said, “Create – for the world is filled with loving-kindness.” Truth[middat ha-din][1] said, “Do not create, for the world is full of lies.” Righteousness said, “Create, for the world is full of ‘righteousness.’” Peace said, “Do not create, for the world is full of strife.” What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He threw truth down to earth and created the world. (Mei ha-Shiloah, Exodus, s.v. Va-yelekh, citing Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)

In this midrash, the personification of the concepts of truth and loving-kindness are to be understood as projections of God’s mind. God, as it were, is of a divided mind: “To create or not to create, that is the question.” The obstacle blocking the act of creation is “truth” – the demand for uncompromising justice. God’s desire to create is repressed by a powerful force, the desire for perfection. According to this principle, the world and everything in it must be perfect, or there will be nothing. But the uncompromising, inflexible demand for absolute truth is incompatible with creation, as humanity is full of imperfection and shortcomings. In the midrash, God decides in favor of kindness and casts truth aside. The drama is resolved, and God creates the world.

Even though the concepts described in these two midrashim (Tanhuma and Bereishit Rabbah quoted by Mei ha-Shiloah) are the same, the circumstances are different; they don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. The first concerns Moses’ meeting with Aaron, the second God’s reluctance to create the world. Mei ha-Shiloah’s innovation is in the fact that he juxtaposes these two midrashim. Seeking to unravel the riddle of Moses’ resistance, he compares Moses to God.

Notice that both God and Moses share the trait of “truth.” God’s resistance to creating the world is borrowed to shed light on Moses’ resistance to redeem the Israelites. And just as the midrash describes God as being conflicted, Mei ha-Shiloah similarly depicts an inner conflict within Moses. Recall that in Tanhuma, Moses represents both truth and righteousness. In Bereishit Rabbah, these two qualities represent opposing positions. Truth said not to create, but righteousness said to create. How then, can Moses embody both the will to create and not to create, or, as Mei ha-Shiloah extends it, how can Moses both yearn to liberate and yet refuse to redeem his people?

To resolve the conflict within Moses, Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef posits a dynamic process which enables Moses to shift from being the embodiment of inflexible truth to being the embodiment of the human characteristic of righteousness. It is this mode of interpretation that I conceive as moving “beyond” the traditional spheres of reading to an innovative, perhaps unexpected level of understanding.

Beyond: The Transformative Stage

Looking back at the path we’ve traveled so far: we began with Moses in peshat as a man who can’t tolerate injustice and is propelled to action; next, we highlighted his reluctance to take action. In the first stage of seeing beyond the peshat, the midrash portrayed Moses as an archetype for justice. Shifting the narrative beyond the historical moment, the midrash directed us to contemplate Moses as an embodiment of the eternal concept of truth. The next stage moved us onto the theological plane. By comparing Moses’ truth to God’s truth and Moses’ reluctance to God’s reluctance, this approach asserted that the source of middot as manifest in human beings, in this case in Moses, has its roots in the divine.

Finally, the hasidic master conflates the psychological, symbolic, and theological planes of meaning to facilitate the final stage: Transformation.

To understand it better, we return to our initial question. What rests at the bottom of Moses’ resistance? Mei ha-Shiloah explains:

And the matter is that truth said, “Do not create!” And also Moses, who personified truth, was exceedingly distressed [to see that] the path of the wicked prosper. How was it possible for Pharaoh to enslave the People of Israel and Israel be obedient to him? This was a lie, since in truth, Pharaoh was completely evil. This distressed Moses greatly. And Aaron his brother embodied the attribute of hesed. He always taught the path of tolerance, to accept everything with love, without any grievances against God. (Mei ha-Shiloah, Exodus,

Moses cannot tolerate the heinous situation which God allows. Pharaoh as Master and the Jewish People as his submissive, obedient subjects offends him. Moses resists entering into the corrupt reality which God tolerates.

Just as God, who resists creating an imperfect world, says, “Do not create,” so too, Moses will not redeem. But, just as God discarded truth, casting it down from heaven to earth, so too Moses must undergo a metamorphosis from the embodiment of truth to the personification of a more temperate trait, here called righteousness. But how does this transformation occur within Moses?

The events in Moses’ life are read as a corrective process through which Moses will experience tolerance and develop patience, qualities essential for him to be a leader.

Who taught you to run away from Pharaoh? Truth would never run away. That is the quality of Aaron. But I, Myself [God] taught you the quality of patience and tolerance, when I appeared to you in the burning bush. There I showed you that “I will be with him in trouble,” I tolerate Pharaoh. (Tanhuma, Exodus 10)

Unbeknownst to Moses, feeling the need to run away from Pharaoh is the beginning of his transformation. According to Mei ha-Shiloah’s reading, Moses is encouraged by God to reflect upon and reread the experiences of his life. The uncharacteristic impulse to run away is a compromise. “Truth” in its rigid formulation would never run away; it would stand and fight for its principles. But if Moses were to assert the truth with a direct assault on Pharaoh, far from achieving the freedom he desires for his brethren, he would only bring about his own death. By fleeing, Moses has already begun to accommodate, to “let go” or shift from his innate desire for “truth” to an attitude that is more sustainable in this world.

Moses’ next transformative experience is when God displays His long-suffering nature by appearing in the thorn bush, symbolizing the fact that God Himself suffers with His people. Finally, Moses encounters his brother Aaron, a man who embodies loving-kindness, patience, and tolerance.

Moses’ encounter with Aaron is an edifying and transformative moment for Moses:

At first there was opposition; “truth” and “loving-kindness” were embattled. But then when Moses’ heart became harmonized [nishtaveh be-lev Moshe] after encountering hesed, he resolved to redeem Israel. (Mei ha-Shiloah, Exodus, s.v. Va-yelekh)

Transitions occur gradually. Similar to God in the midrash on creation, Moses’ initial reaction to Aaron, who embodies hesed, is one of resistance. But little by little, Moses’ truth is tempered by his encounter with Aaron.

Yet we may take this one step further. For while Mei ha-Shiloah points out the experiences in the narrative that wrought this transformation within Moses, he leaves it up to us to envision and describe them more fully.

To be in the presence of Aaron, a man of loving-kindness, makes an impression on Moses. Loving-kindness is the counterforce to “truth.” Hesed is rooted in the desire to give altruistically and indiscriminately. Hesed does not differentiate between who is worthy of the receiving of the kindness and who is not. Rooted in the emotion of love, it feels connected to all living things and desires to facilitate connections with others. The source of that love is rooted in and sustained by the love of God. Like all human traits, hesed, is a reflection of God’s middot. Realizing this propels us beyond the experiential realm to a theological truth as well.

When Moses encounters Aaron, he encounters a different way to appreciate and value God’s creation. In Aaron, Moses experiences the infinite value that exists in even a single moment of kindness. That single moment of hesed reflects a divergent way of being. It is Aaron’s way. It does not explain or resolve the evil in the world. Although Moses does not let go of who he is and become Aaron, the encounter leaves a lasting impression upon him. He undergoes a transformation from personifying uncompromising truth to one who can appreciate human compassion and limitation. Truth, when tempered by patience and loving-kindness, becomes a striving for justice that is realistic and attainable. This is what the Mei ha’Shiloah calls righteousness. Mei ha-Shiloah uses the unusual word hishtavut-harmonization to show that this transition is internal, integral, and an organic process which unfolds over time. At this point in Moses’ development the integration has just begun; it is not fully realized until later in his life.

Just how monumental this transformation is becomes evident only in a later episode: the sin of the Golden Calf. Here, God and Moses effectively switch roles! God is intolerant and wants to immediately wipe out the sinning people (Exodus 32:10). Moses, on the other hand, takes on the role of the long-suffering and tolerant one, beseeching God to overlook the people’s sins, let go of His divine passion for absolute justice, and maintain His covenant with His nation (Exodus 32:32). This is not the same Moses who refused to go down to Egypt on behalf of the people. This is no longer the reluctant uncompromising representative of absolute truth. Moses now symbolizes righteousness, the product of his encounter with his brother, with forbearance and compassion.

Process of Refinement – Tahalikh ha-Berur

What emerges from this reading is a dynamic internal process within Moses, the transformation from truth to righteousness. In the teachings of Ishbitz-Radzyn, this is referred to as the process of refinement or tahalikh ha-berur, a spiritual and moral directive which strives for tikkun ha-middot, a primary aim of religious life.[2]

Read this way, Moses’ character elucidates our own desire for perfection and passion for justice. We are called upon to recognize our own reluctance to “create” or our own inclination to disengage when faced with considerable challenges and the likelihood of imperfection. Moreover, we are are directed to be deeply attentive to the Aarons in our lives, and the alternative voices of Aaron within ourselves. Read and experienced in this way, the Torah becomes a road map which can guide us as we journey towards personal refinement and growth.

[1] Here in my discussion I am addressing the meaning of truth as middat ha-din. Middat ha-din has many nuances. Here I am focusing on its meaning as exacting justice. Both terms will be used interchangeably in the article to refer to this characteristic.

[2] Tikkun ha-middot is not the final aim of religious life. Rather, it is the condition by which a person can become a vehicle to reveal the divine presence in this mundane world. This discussion requires independent attention and is beyond the scope of this article.

Batya Hefter is the founder of Lev Nachon – Center for Transformative Torah, whose focus is to transmit the teachings of Hasidic masters into a vital ethical and spiritual path for the modern seeking Jew. She is the founding Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion where she served as spiritual leader and executive director for two decades. She holds a master’s degree in Rabbinic Thought from Hebrew University. Batya just completed the manuscript of her first forthcoming book; Opening the Window:Hasidic Readings for Life – The Teachings of Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Ishbitz-Radzyn.