August 13, 2022 | 16 Av 5782
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11; Triennial 5:1-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Moshe the Mother
In this week’s parashah we bear witness to the pathos of Moshe’s plea with God to allow him to enter the land of Israel. Moshe, in speaking to the people of Israel at the end of their wilderness journey, explains that it is on their account that he has been denied entry to the land – “The Lord was enraged with me because of you” (3:26). Moshe thus blames the people he has devoted his entire life to shepherding and sheltering. The midrashim on the opening verses of our parashah attempt to come to terms with Moshe’s relationship with the Israelites at the end of his life, employing a surprising metaphor that lays bare the ambivalence of a leader who has given himself over entirely to his people.
In the opening verses of our parashah, Moshe tells the people that following the defeat of the enemy kings Sihon and Og, he pleaded with God to let him enter the land along with the Israelites: “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon” (3:25). The term for “cross over,” e’ebra, is echoed in God’s response to Moshe in the next verse: God becomes enraged (va-yitaber) with Moshe and tells him never to raise the subject again. Both terms also resonate with God’s instructions to Moshe at the end of the book of Numbers to ascend and view the land from afar, from the “heights of Avarim” (27:12), which Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg translates as “the heights of transitions” (Zornberg, Bewilderments, p. 291). Moshe, who pleads with God to let him cross over, finds his desire frustrated by an angry God Who insists that he will merely be allowed to view the land from a transition point that will mark his own passage from life to death, as per the next verse: “When you have seen it, you shall be gathered to your forebears” (27:13). To employ a parallel play on words in English, we might say that Moshe is preoccupied with his fervent desire to cross over, but God crossly insists that no, Moshe’s life is over.The root avar, which lies at the root of all these terms in the original Hebrew, connotes not just crossing over and getting angry, but also a surprising additional meaning uncovered by an early midrash on the book of Deuteronomy. In Sifrei Devarim (Piska 29) the second-century sage Rabbi Yehoshua reads vayitaber as referring to “a woman who is in no condition to converse because of the pangs of pregnancy.” This term may refer to God, who is so angry with Moshe that He refuses to engage further; but it is also an apt term to describe Moshe, who has carried the people around for so long that he is at the end of his tether. Rabbi Yehoshua is playing on the phonetic similarity between avar (cross over) and ibur (pregnancy), both of which share the same three-letter Hebrew root. The term ibur is used in rabbinic sources to refer to anything that is enlarged or expanded by means of something that is added on (like the “impregnation of a city” by expanding its boundaries, or the “impregnation of a year” by adding another month in a leap year). Rabbi Yehoshua may be explaining Moshe’s use of this term—vayitaber Adonai bi—as signifying that God impregnated Moshe with the people of Israel, pushing him to expand beyond his ordinary capacity and bear the Israelites through the wilderness until they reached full term.
Rabbi Yehoshua’s invocation of the metaphor of pregnancy to describe Moshe’s leadership is not without biblical precedent. Earlier in the wilderness journey, at a place known as Kivrot Hataavah (the graves of craving), the people complained bitterly to Moshe about the manna, wishing instead that they had meat to eat. Distressed and frustrated by the people’s incessant demands, Moshe cried out to God, “Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?” (Numbers 11:11). Here, as in our parashah, we encounter a distressed and frustrated Moshe who cannot enjoy God’s favor on account of the burden of bearing the people of Israel. And here, too, Moshe invokes the metaphor of pregnancy in speaking of his relationship with the people: “Did I conceive this people, and did I bear them, that You should say to me: Carry them in your bosom as a nursemaid carries an infant to the land that you promised to their fathers?” (11:12). Moshe refers to the people as an unwanted pregnancy so burdensome that it has made him want to die: “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me instead!” (11:14-15).
Moshe’s exasperation with bearing the people and laboring on their behalf finds its echo in Deuteronomy, in a verse rendered famous by its use of the term Eicha: “How (eicha) can I bear alone the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering” (1:12), he tells the people at the end of his life. But Moshe has always been an ambivalent mother. Although initially very resistant to taking on his role—as evident by his demurral at the burning bush—Moshe came to care deeply and devotedly for his charges. Following the sin of the golden calf, when God threatened to destroy the people and make Moshe into a new nation—“Let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation” (Exodus 23:10)—Moshe refused to let God save his own skin at the expense of the people: “If You will forgive their sin, good; but if not, erase me from the book You have written” (23:32). Moshe may not have wanted to bear the people, but now that he is responsible for them, he realizes that his fate is bound up in theirs.
Like an ambivalent mother, Moshe resents his children for the toll they have taken on him, but he also cannot imagine his life without them. He realizes that to become a mother is to give of yourself to your child. It is to bear that child within you, to carry it around, and then to let that child loose into the world and watch it travel to places you will never be able to access. It involves forsaking your own hopes and ambitions, while seeing them realized through your children.
Perhaps now, at the end of his life, Moshe has come to appreciate the way in which motherhood embraces the multiple meanings of the term avar/ibur invoked repeatedly in our parashah. He has felt the full weight of bearing the people through the forty years of wilderness wandering, like a forty-week pregnancy. The pangs of labor have been intense, and there were moments when he cried out to God that he simply could not bear it anymore. At the same time, he wishes he could cross over with them. His children will go further and live longer into the future than he will, and while he is full of hope for them, he is also deeply saddened that he cannot continue alongside them. Moshe has borne the people as again and again they pushed the limits of his forbearance; now the time has come to join his forebears, if only he can bear to let go.
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