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    Feeling sorry for Moses

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 16 May, 2021.

    King David, by Domenico Zampieri

    Moses had his chance of undying fame on Passover, but the Jewish people were against him.

    As leader of the Israelite Exodus, he had every right to have Passover associated with his name as the Festival of Moses. But the formulators of the Haggadah must have thought that big-noting Moses would give the impression that it was his personal initiative that took the people out of slavery.

    They insisted that God alone should get the credit for redeeming the people, so they endorsed the Midrash which makes God say, “It was I who brought the people out of Egypt – I and not an angel, I and not an agent, I and no-one else.” So in the end, all that Moses received in the Haggadah was one incidental mention in a biblical quotation.

    The next opportunity Moses had to become a hero was Shavu’ot, when it was he who ascended the mountain and came down with the tablets of the Torah. One would think that if not Passover, then Shavu’ot would have become the Festival of Moses.

    But history’s verdict was against him this time too, and Shavu’ot became the festival of King David.

    Part of the reason is that it was David’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. Moses’s yahrzeit was 7 Adar, a few days before Purim. This became an occasion for attention and observance by a chevrah kadisha, burial society, but not for the ordinary Jew.

    What gave David the edge on Shavu’ot was not his political status as king of Israel but three long-term historical factors:
    • He was the founder of the Jewish royal dynasty from whom the Messiah would eventually emerge;
    • He was the ancestor of Ruth who, as a Moabite woman, was approved by the sages, whereas (according to the Torah) a male Moabite would not be, which shows the importance of the oral (rabbinic) tradition and emphasises that Judaism is both written and oral Torah;
    • He was ne’im zemirot Yisra’el, the “sweet singer of Israel,” to whom are attributed the biblical psalms that are the fountain of Jewish faith and spirituality, the inspiration for Jewish belief and ethics.

    None of this derogates from the greatness of Moses, but it all adds up to the more abiding love for David, which is the keynote of Jewish peoplehood. Every stage in the life of David – as shepherd, harpist and poet, as scholar and sage, as friend of every Jew and as the personification of Jewish royalty and the founder of the future – was romanticised and made precious to midrashist and muse.

    We encounter David everywhere in Jewish custom and ritual. The Jewish badge is the Shield of David, the Star of David is the centerpiece of Israel’s flag and the conventional motif in synagogue design and decor. The Shabbat-night meal is his banquet, Jerusalem is his city and our best-known hotel is on King David Street.

    Ezekiel says in the name of God, “David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall have one shepherd.” The verse could refer to David, or to the Almighty, of whom David sang, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

    According to the Zohar, Adam admired David so much that he forfeited 70 years of his own life and gave them to David. In turn, David’s leadership gave years and centuries of inspiration to Adam’s descendants.

    The sages could not imagine that David was not a Torah scholar, and they made him into an intellectual hero, a high-quality talmid chacham, a leader among the successions of gedolei hador, giants of their generation.

    Couldn’t the case for Moses have outweighed these arguments? Wasn’t Moses also a shepherd in his youth? Was he not an able poet? Was he not a military strategist? Did he not mold Israel into a nation and inaugurate Jewish history? Was it not Moses who established the status of both the written and the oral Torah? Did not Ahad Ha’Am argue that the real greatness of Moses was that he was a prophet?

    But David exemplified the Jewish principle (turned into a book title by Zborowski and Herzog) that “Life is with people.” David had folk appeal; Moses was an authority figure whom everybody respected but did not always love as one of their own. In the end, Moses suffered on Shavuot for the same reason as on Passover: to give God, not the human leader, the ultimate credit.

    Neither Islam nor Christianity had the Jewish feeling for David or Moses.

    Both daughter faiths had their own priorities. Muhammad, who called the Jews “the people of the book,” lacked the Jewish feeling for David and Torah study, and accused the Jews of distorting the scriptures. He appreciated David’s religious zeal but not his nationalism.

    Christianity saw Jesus as a new David (indeed a new Moses) without what they saw as the failings and faults of the original. The Gospels claim that Jesus descended from David, though any such lineage was through Jesus’s father, Joseph, who is believed by Christians not to have physically begotten his son.

    In Judaism, the honours on Shavu’ot went to David, but though it was not formally accepted as Moses’s festival, in the last analysis it did award a measure of appreciation to Moses. Just as Passover emphasised the deeds of God, so did Shavu’ot.

    On both days, therefore, we laud the Lord, and we acknowledge that Moses was His agent – His agent, but no more.

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