Friday, January 03, 2014

Grandpa Moses

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Moses wears many hats in Scripture -- prophet and priest, lawgiver and leader, diplomat and general, king and servant -- but a role we rarely see him in is father and husband. In fact, we never see Moses directly speak or interact with his children or wife. Consider last week's Torah portion, in which Moses and Aaron are genealogized (Ex. 6): we hear about Aaron's wife, children, grandchild, father-, brother- and daughter-in-law, but Moses' family is entirely absent.
This makes the opening to this week's Torah portion, Bo, particularly striking (Ex. 10:1-2):
Lord said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants so that I may perform these signs of Mine among them; so that you may recount in the ears of your child and your grandchild how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and you may know that I am Lord.”
To whom does "your child and your grandchild" refer? It could be a broad, figurative term, much like three of the Four Children who appear later on in the portion. However, in those cases (12:24-27; 13:3-8; 13:13-16), the Torah makes it clear that we are referring to distant progeny, in both the chronological and geographical senses: "And it will be when Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanites... you shall keep this service seasonally from year to year." Grandchildren are not mentioned, presumably because the "children" include all descendants. In each of these latter cases, it is Moses who is speaking to the Israelites, while in the beginning of Bo, it is God speaking to him, without any command to transmit this to the nation. Finally, in the portion's opening, we find a unique verb which does not recur later in the portion: recounting, sippur, the special term for the retelling of the Exodus story at the Seder of Passover.
This suggests that God's command may have particular resonance for Moses. This is shortly before he makes his famous declaration to Pharaoh, “With our young and our old, we will go; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds, we will go, because Lord's festival is ours!" The irony is that Moses will not go with his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, because his sons are back in Midian with his wife Zipporah and father-in-law Jethro. Instead, he will meet them at Mt. Sinai, when Jethro brings them. On that occasion, we are told (Ex. 18:5-8):
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.” So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses recounted to his father-in-law all that Lord had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake...
This is the first sippur, the premiere recounting of the Exodus story, but Moses does not relate it to his sons (or his wife). Indeed, they utterly vanish from the Torah. We only find Gershom's name recurring in Scripture in a bizarre context.
There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land.
That's the version of Judges 18:30 that you'll find in many manuscripts and translations. Your Tanakh may have Menasseh (מנשה) instead of Moses (משה), but the nun (נ) will be in superscript, as there is little doubt that it was Moses' grandson Jonathan who served as an idolatrous priest.
The Midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 2:3) maintains that Jonathan did not rely on or believe in this idol, and he would mock the fifty-year-olds who came to worship the fifteen-year-old statue. Why then did he do it?
He said to him: "This is the tradition handed down from Grandfather's house: better to sell yourself to foreign service (avoda zara) than to be dependent on others."
The Midrash goes on to explain that this was a garbling of Moses' message; still, is it any surprise that this was the message received by the grandchild in whose ears Moses was supposed to recount the Exodus? Ultimately, Jonathan concludes, it is better to be a prince of Egypt -- or a priest of Egyptian-style gods -- than to be a pauper-prophet of Israel.
There is a potent message here for all parents. Moses may have been the greatest prophet in Jewish history, but he would not have been a candidate for Father of the Year, 2448. The need to recount one's personal journey and experience of faith is a paramount parental obligation. If you cannot tell it to your children, how can you possibly tell it to the world?

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