“Would a Human Author Have Written this?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotecha, contains a host of diverse themes. Topics include: the Menorah, consecration of the Levites, the Second Passover, trumpets of silver, the people’s departure from Sinai, murmurings and rebellions, the appointment of the seventy elders and Miriam speaking against Moses.

Toward the end of Numbers 10, in a series of four short verses (Numbers 10:29-32), we read that Moses invited his father-in-law, Jethro, to join the nation of Israel and accompany the people as they travel to the land of Israel. In Numbers 10:29 Moses appeals to Jethro, who is referred to here as Hobab son of Reuel, with the following words: “L’chah ee’tah’noo, v’hay’tahv’noo lach, kee Hashem dee’bayr tov ahl Yisrael,” Go with us and we shall treat you well, for G-d has spoken good concerning Israel. Jethro demurs, saying that he wishes to return to his land (Midian) and to his family. Moses, however, persists, begging Jethro not to forsake the Jewish people, stating in Numbers 10:31: “Kee ahl kayn yah’da’tah cha’no’tay’noo ba’midbar, v’ha’yee’tah lah’noo l’ay’nah’yeem,” For you know our encampments in the wilderness, and have been as eyes for us. And, furthermore, says Moses, if you come with us, then we will do good to you with the goodness that G-d benefits us.

Although the Torah does not specifically state whether Jethro agreed to accompany Israel, most commentators conclude that he did, and that he and his entire family remained with Moses. Others, such as Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator), suggest that Jethro’s children stayed with Moses, but that Jethro himself returned to Midian. In Judges 1:16 we are told that the descendants of Jethro inhabited “Eer HaT’marim,” the Date City, the city of Jericho, one of the most important cities in the Promised Land, clearly confirming that at least Jethro’s family remained with the Israelites.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) notes that Moses’ original request to Jethro to remain with Israel appealed to Jethro’s own interest, assuring him that if he would remain with Israel, he would be handsomely rewarded. Moses’ second appeal to Jethro, however, requested that Jethro not depart because his presence was critical to Israel’s own well-being. It was indeed in Israel’s own interest that Jethro remain, because Jethro possessed a vast knowledge of skills that were necessary for encamping in the wilderness. Wherever the people of Israel would be directed by G-d to pitch their camp, Jethro would know all the possible advantages to be had from that particular location.

At this point, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes an extraordinarily bold statement. Rabbi Hirsch insists that the conversation in which Moses beseeches his father-in-law to remain and to serve as the eyes of the community, as well as the advice that Jethro had previously given to Moses (Exodus 18:13-27) about how to establish the judicial system,

proves for all time, how little talent for organizing–that very first qualification for the state building legislator–was innate in Moses. So does the fact that is told us here, completely refute all the nonsense that is circulated of Moses having knowledge of all the plans and their specialties in the desert, with the object of reducing the Divine element in our wanderings in the wilderness to the lower level of a clever and cunning leadership. The man who required the advice of his father-in-law for the most elementary organization and arrangements of the camp, and wrote both down for the everlasting memory of his people, he could only have accomplished law-giving and leadership as the instrument of G-d, and was the very last man to wish to surround himself with the halo of more than human insight and miraculous powers.

Although Rabbi Hirsch stresses the point that it is G-d who ultimately directs the people of Israel, we see that the Torah clearly portrays Moses as a man lacking even the most rudimentary organizational skills, a man who would have been completely lost in the wilderness were it not for his formerly-idolatrous Midianite father-in-law.

This is but one of many instances in which the Torah portrays its main characters and heroes as deficient. How different this is from the way other religions immortalize their leaders, almost always portraying them as infallible and faultless. In stark contrast, the Torah’s heroes are human and filled with faults, so that others may learn from their errors and be enriched, which is exactly the Torah’s mission for humankind.

That is why we find that the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), castigates Abraham (Genesis 12:10) saying that “Abraham sinned a grievous sin unintentionally” by endangering Sarah when he said that she was his sister rather than his wife. That is why Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests (Genesis 25:27) that Isaac and Rebecca were not sensitive to the different educational needs of their children when they tried to raise Jacob and Esau using the same cookie-cutter mold. It is for this reason that the great High Priest Aaron is depicted (Exodus 32:21) of complicity in fashioning the Golden Calf. David is regarded as a grave sinner who repents. Jonah flees from Nineveh because he fears that the non-Jewish citizens of Nineveh would repent if they would hear the prophet’s reprimands, whereas the Jewish people never listened to Jonah’s words of reproof. The great High Priest Eli had sons who were corrupt, known for abusing women who had just given birth (I Samuel 1:12). Even G-d (Genesis 6:6) regrets creating the human being that He had fashioned!

Our Torah is not one of those “commissioned biographies” or saccharin-coated chronicles that make the authors, characters and G-d look good. In fact, it is so brutally honest, filled with errors, sins, and mistakes, on the part of all its characters, that had it been edited by humans, those sinful and embarrassing moments would surely have been amended or eliminated.

The Psalmist says (Psalms 19:8), “Torat Hashem t’meemah” the Torah of G-d is pure and perfect. Our Torah is perfect because it is brutally honest. It is perfect because “it tells it the way it is.” It is perfect because it serves as a most effective educational instrument for fallible human beings who can see that even the greatest of G-d’s specimens are fallible, but reparable.

This is the prodigious contribution of Judaism. This is the legacy of our people, and the legacy of our Torah. How privileged we are to embrace it and to be part of this extraordinary tradition.

May you be blessed.