Behind the enigma of Moses the man

Moses — A Human Life Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,  Yale University Press, £16.99


Part of the Yale series on Jewish Lives, this work into the multiple identities of Moses is a rich — sometimes overly rich — exploration of the man who is simultaneously central to our texts around the birth of Jewish peoplehood and an unknown, unknowable figure who it sometimes seems is deliberately veiled from us. 

Zornberg reminds us that while the first thing Moses says to God is Hineini, “Here I am”; the second thing he says is Mi anochi, “Who am I?” And it is this question that she focuses on, drawing on a variety of approaches from the worlds of psychology and philosophy as well as more traditional rabbinic commentators. 

She posits a deeply traumatised Moses, whose early experiences of dislocation from his birth identity are reinforced by his dislocation within his adopted identity. His developing relationship with language parallels the challenges his evolving self creates. His is a human life, flawed and filled with anxiety; in Zornberg’s hands, Moses becomes the metaphor for the fragility of human existence and the truth that no human life is ever truly fulfilled. 

Zornberg says she has allowed herself to be provoked by Moses in order to speak for the man whose mission was to speak for his people. In doing so, it becomes ever clearer that there are no words to truly represent what he (and by extension she) are trying to communicate. Through her eyes we see his struggle to take on the role of bridging heaven and earth, we see his inadequacy and his shortcomings, and we see how God holds the ring, yet I am not sure we ever come any closer to Moses the man, or to extraordinary task he is called to do.

This is a book that rewards the thoughtful and intrepid reader, but the sheer volume and variety of lenses through which Zornberg views Moses and his struggles can lead to some confusion and exhaustion as one follows through the complex thinking brought to bear on this very human and reluctant leader.  

Ultimately, we see how being other, coming from outside the group and burdened with self-doubt, trauma and disabilities of speech, are not barriers to becoming the inspirational leader who is able to guide and teach the rabble who journey from slavery in Egypt to become a free people.

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