Ajad Haam (1904)
(In this article) I take, a comprehensive view of the whole range of tradition about Moses,
and ask myself first: What essentially is Moses? In other words, what manner of thing is
the national ideal which has its embodiment in Moses? There are heroes and heroes;
heroes of war, heroes of thought, and so forth; and when we examine an ideal picture we
must first be clear as to the essential nature of the ideal which the artist had in his mind
and attempted to portray.
And as I look at the figure of Moses I go on to ask: Was he a military hero?
No! The whole canvas betrays no hint of physical force. We never find Moses at the head
of an army, performing feats of valour against the enemy. Only once do we see him on the
battlefield, in the battle with Amalek; and there he simply stands and watches the course
of the fighting, helping the army of Israel by his moral strength, but taking no part in the
actual battle. Again: Was he a statesman? Again, no! When he had to confront Pharaoh
and discuss questions of politics with him, he was helpless without his brother Aaron, his
mouthpiece. Was he, then, a lawgiver? Once more, no! Every lawgiver makes laws for his
own age, with a view to the needs of that time and that place in which he and his people
live. But Moses made laws for the future, for a generation that did not yet exist, and a
country not yet conquered; and tradition has made no secret of the fact that many laws
attributed to Moses only came into force after several generations, while others have
never been put into practice at all. What, then, was Moses? Tradition answers in the most
explicit terms: “There arose not a Prophet since in Israel like unto Moses”. This, then, is
what Moses was: a Prophet. But he was different from the other Prophets, whose
appearance in our history, as a specific type, dates only from the period of the monarchy.
He was, as later generations learned to call him, ” the lord of the Prophets,” that is, the
ideal archetype of Hebrew prophecy in the purest and most exalted sense of the word.
The Prophet has two fundamental qualities, which distinguish him from the rest of
mankind. First, he is a man of truth. He sees life as it is, with a view unwrapped by
subjective feelings; and he tells you what he sees just as he sees it, unaffected by irrelevant
considerations. He tells the truth not because he wishes to tell the truth, not because he
has convinced himself, after inquiry, that such is his duty, but because he needs must,
because truth-telling is a special characteristic of his genius a characteristic of which he
cannot rid himself, even if he would. (…)
Secondly, the Prophet is an extremist. He concentrates his whole heart and mind on his
ideal, in which he finds the goal of life, and to which he is determined to make the whole
world do service, without the smallest exception. There is in his soul a complete, ideal
world; and on that pattern he labors to reform the external world of reality. He has a clear
conviction that, so things must be, and no more is needed to make him demand that, so
they shall be. He can accept no excuse, can consent to no compromise, can never cease
thundering his passionate denunciations, even if the whole universe is against him.
From these two fundamental characteristics there results a third, which is a combination
of the other two: namely, the supremacy of absolute righteousness in the Prophet’s soul,
in his every word and action. (…)
The Prophet, then, is in this position: on the one hand, he cannot altogether reform the
world according to his desire; on the other hand, he cannot cheat himself and shut his
eyes to its defects. Hence it is impossible for him ever to be at peace with the actual life in
which his days are spent. There is thus a grain of truth in the popular idea of the Prophet
as above all a man who predicts the future; for, in truth, the whole world of the Prophet
consists of his heart’s vision of what is to come, of ” the latter end of days.”
But just as the Prophet will not bow to the world, so the world will not bow to him, will
not accept his influence immediately and directly. This influence must first pass through
certain channels in which it becomes adapted to the conditions of life. Then only can it
affect mankind. These channels are human channels. They are men who cannot rise to
the Prophet’s elevation, and have no sympathy with his extremism, but are none the less
near to him in spirit than the mass of men, and are capable of being influenced by him up
to a certain point. These men are the Priests of the prophetic ideal. They stand between
the Prophet and the world, and transmit his influence by devious ways, adapting their
methods to the needs of each time, and not insisting that the message shall descend on the
workaday world in all its pristine purity.
When Moses first leaves the schoolroom and goes out into the world, he is at once
brought face to face with a violation of justice, and unhesitatingly he takes the side of the
injured. Here at the outset is revealed the eternal struggle between the Prophet and the
world. “An Egyptian smiting a Hebrew,” the strong treading scornfully on the weak this
every-day occurrence is his first experience. The Prophet’s indignation is aroused, and he
helps the weaker. Then “two Hebrews strove together ” two brothers, both weak, both
slaves of Pharaoh: and yet they fight each other. Once more the Prophet’s sense of justice
compels him, and he meddles in a quarrel which is not his. But this time he discovers that
it is no easy matter to fight the battle of justice; that the world is stronger than himself,
and that he who stands against the world does so at his peril. Yet this experience does not
make him prudent or cautious. His zeal for justice drives him from his country; and as
soon as he reaches another haunt of men, while he is still sitting by the well outside the
city, before he has had time to find a friend and shelter, he hears once more the cry of
outraged justice, and runs immediately to its aid. This time the wranglers are not
Hebrews, but foreigners and strangers. But what of that? The Prophet makes no
distinction between man and man, only between right and wrong. He sees strong
shepherds trampling on the rights of weak women ff and Moses stood up and helped
We may therefore infer that throughout the whole of that period, in all his wanderings,
he never ceased to fight the battle of justice, until the day came when he was to be the
savior of his people, and teach the world justice, not for his own time merely, but for all
That great moment dawned in the wilderness, far away from the turmoil of the world.
The Prophet’s soul is weary of his ceaseless battle, and he would fain rest in peace. He
turns his back on men for the shepherd’s life and takes his sheep into the wilderness.
There ” he came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb.” But even here there is no rest for
him. He feels that he has not yet fulfilled his mission; a secret force in his heart urges him
on, saying, ” What does thou here? Go thou, work and fight: for to that end was thou
created.” He would like to disregard this voice but cannot. The Prophet hears “the voice of
God ” in his heart, whether he will or not: ” and if I say, I will not make mention of him
then there is in mine heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary
with forbearing, and I cannot contain.”
Suddenly he hears the inner “voice of God” the voice that he knows so well calling to him
from some forgotten corner of his heart: “I am the God of thy father …. I have surely seen
the affliction of my people which are in Egypt …. Come now, therefore, and I will send
thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of
“The God of his father,” “the affliction of his people ” how can he have forgotten all this
till now? Faithfully has he served the God of the Universe, fighting a hero’s battle for
universal justice. In Midian, in every country in which he set foot, he has striven always
to deliver the oppressed from the oppressor, has preached always truth and peace and
charity. But the God of his father he has forgotten; his people he has not remembered; the
affliction wherewith the Egyptians afflict his people of that he has taken no thought. Now
a new hope springs up in the Prophet’s heart and grows stronger each moment.
Now he will go to his own brethren, his own people, and will speak to them in the name
of the God of his fathers and theirs. They will know and respect him; they will listen to all
that he says, will listen and obey: and the sovereignty of righteousness, hitherto nothing
more than his heart’s ideal will be established in the world by this his people, which he
will bring forth out of the house of bondage. Under the spell of this noble idea the
Prophet forgets for a moment all the obstacles in his path, and in fancy sees himself
already in Egypt among his people. To Pharaoh, indeed, he will not go alone. He knows
beforehand that such a man as he, unskilled to speak smooth words, cannot bend the
hearts of kings to his desire. But he will approach first his own people; he wi1 assemble
the “elders of Israel,” men who are known in the royal house; to them first he will reveal
the great tidings, that God has visited them. And these men, the flower of the people, will
understand him and ” hearken to his voice.” They will go with him to Pharaoh and give
God’s message to the king in a language which he understands.
But how if even they, the elders of Israel, ” will not hearken to his voice,” “will not
believe” in his mission? In that case he knows what to do. Not for nothing was he brought
up in Pharaoh’s house on the knees of the magicians. ” Enchantments ” are an
abomination to him; but what can he do if the ” elders of Israel ” believe only in such
things, and are open to no other appeal?
Even the ” sons of God ” have been known to fall from Heaven to earth; and even the
Prophet has his moments of relapse, when the spirit of prophecy deserts him, and his
mortal elements drag him down into the mire of the world. But only for a moment can
the Prophet cease to be what he ought to be, and needs must be a man of truth. Scarcely
has Moses conceived this idea of gaining credence by means of magic enchantments,
when the Prophet in him rises up in arms against this unclean thought. Never! Since first
he began to hear ” the voice of God ” his tongue has been a holy instrument, the outer
vesture of that Divine voice within him; but ” a man of words,” a man whose words are
only means to the attainment of his desires, not genuinely connected with his thought
such a man he has never been ” heretofore,” nor will ever be. That is a price which he will
not pay even for the redemption of his people. If there is no way but through
enchantments, then let the redemption be achieved by others, and let him alone in his
spotless truth, alone in the wilderness (…).
But it is not easy for the Prophet to remain in the wilderness. The burning fire which has
just roused all his spiritual forces to action has not yet been quelled; it will give him no
rest till he finds some way to carry out his thought.
So, at last, the Prophet finds the necessary ” channel ” through which his influence shall
reach the people. He has a brother in Egypt, a man of position, a Levite, who knows how
to shape his words to the needs of the time and the place.
So, the immediate goal is reached. Pharaoh and all his host lie at the bottom of the Red
Sea, and Moses stands at the head of a free people, leading them to the land of their
ancestors. “Then sang Moses …” In this hour of happiness his heart overflows with
emotion and pours itself out in song. He does not know that he is still at the beginning of
his journey; he does not know that the real task, the most difficult task, has still to be
commenced. Pharaoh is gone, but his work remains; the master has ceased to be master,
but the slaves have not ceased to be slaves. A people trained for generations in the house
of bondage cannot cast off in an instant the effects of that training and become truly free,
even when the chains have been struck off.
But the Prophet believes in the power of his ideal. He is convinced that the ideal which
he is destined to give to his people will have enough force to expel the taint of slavery,
and to imbue this slave-people with a new spirit of strength and upward striving, equal to
all the demands of its lofty mission. Then the Prophet gathers his people at the foot of the
mountain, opens the innermost heavens before them, and shows them the God of their
fathers in a new form, in all His universal grandeur. (…)
“Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire ” such lofty
and majestic words? And the nation that has heard this message, though it may have been
sunk for centuries in the morass of slavery and degradation, how can it fail to rise out of
the depths, and feel in its innermost soul the purifying light that streams in upon it?
So, thinks the Prophet; and the people confirm his belief, as they cry ecstatically, with
one voice, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.”
So, the Prophet leaves the camp in peace of mind, and withdraws into solitude on the top
of the mountain, there to perfect and complete the law of righteousness.
But before he has been many days out of sight the Egyptian bondman rears his head, and
in a moment overturns the dream-castle which the Prophet has built on the foundation of
his faith in the power of the ideal. ” The voice of God ” is drowned by ” the noise of the
people as they shouted”; and the Priest, whom the Prophet trusted, who was his
mouthpiece before Pharaoh and the people, this very Priest is carried away by the mob,
and makes them “gods” after their own heart and builds an altar ….
This, in his view, is what the hour demands: and the Priest is above all a man of the hour.
The Prophet’s grief knows no bounds. All his work, all his visions of hi> people’s glorious
mission, all the hope which comforted him in his arduous path, all is vanished into
nothing. He is seized by impotent despair. ‘ The tablets of the Covenant ” fall from his
hand and are broken; his faith in himself and his work is shaken. Now he sees how hard it
is to create a ” peculiar people ” out of such warped material, and for one moment he
thinks of abandoning this ” obstinate people,” and entrusting his tablets to the remnant
who are faithful to his covenant. They will observe his law and win over little by little the
best of mankind, till they become “a great nation”; and he will return to his shepherd’s life
in the wilderness.
But the Prophet is not a Priest: it is not for him to bow to circumstances without a
struggle, and to change his way of thought at their bidding. The first impulse passes’ away,
and the Prophet returns to his mission, and resolves to go forward, come what may. Now
he realizes the hard task that lies before him.
He no longer believes in a sudden revolution; he knows that signs and wonders and
visions of God can arouse a momentary enthusiasm, but cannot create a new heart, cannot
uproot and implant feelings and inclinations with any stability or permanence. So, he
summons all his patience to the task of bearing the troublesome burden of his people and
training it by slow steps till it is fit for its mission.
Thus, the first period passes away. The Prophet teaches, trains, bears, and forgives, borne
up by the hope of seeing the fruits of his labor at no distant day, when his people’s mission
will be fulfilled in their own land.
And then comes the incident of the spies. Here is a nation on its way to conquer a country
by force, and there build up its own distinctive national life, which is to be an example to
the world: and at the first unfavorable report despair sets in, and the glorious future is
forgotten. Even the Prophet’s heart fails him at this evidence of utter, fathomless
degradation. Moses now sees, then, that his last hope is groundless. Not even education
will avail to make this degraded mob capable of a lofty mission. Straightway the Prophet
decrees extinction on his generation, and resolves to remain in the wilderness forty years,
till all that generation be consumed, and its place be taken by a new generation, born and
bred in freedom, and trained from childhood under the influence of the Law which it is to
observe in the land of its future.
The Prophet has decreed, and will not, nay cannot, retract. He is convinced that “this evil
congregation” can be of no use for his purpose, and no entreaty will induce the Prophet to
act against his convictions. He mourns with them and makes their grief his own; but for
their supplications he has one stern answer, ” Go not up, for the Lord is not among you.”
So, the Prophet remains in the wilderness, buries his own generation and trains up a new
one. Year after year passes, and he never grows weary of repeating to this growing
generation the laws of righteousness that must guide its life in the land of its future; never
tires of recalling the glorious past in which these laws were fashioned. The past and the
future are the Prophet’s whole life, each completing the other. In the present he sees
nothing but a wilderness, a life far removed from his ideal; and therefore, he looks before
and after. He lives in the future world of his vision and seeks strength in the past out of
which that vision-world is quarried.
Forty years are gone, and the new generation is about to emerge from its vagabond life in
the wilderness and take up the broken thread of the national task, when the Prophet dies,
‘ and another man assumes the leadership, and brings the people to its land.
Why does the Prophet die? Why is it not vouchsafed to him to complete his work
himself? Tradition, as we know, gives no enough reason.
But tradition recognized, with unerring instinct, that so it needs must be. When the time
comes for the ideal to be embodied in practice, the Prophet can no longer stand at the
head; he must give place to another. The reason is that from that moment there begins a
new period, a period in which prophecy is dumb, a period of those half-measures and
compromises which are essential to the battle of life. In this period reality assumes
gradually a form very different from that of the Prophet’s vision; and so, it is better for
him to die than to witness this change.
‘He shall see the land before him, but he shall not go thither.” He has brought his people
to the border, fitted them for their future, and given them a noble ideal to be their
lodestar in time of trouble, their comfort and their salvation; the rest is for other men,
who are more skilled to compromise with life.
Let them do what they will do and achieve what they will achieve, be it much or little. In
any case they will not achieve all that the Prophet wished, and their way will not be his
way. As for him, the Prophet, he dies, as he has lived, in his faith.
He dies with gladness on his face, and with words of comfort for the latter days on his
lips: dies, as tradition says, ” in a kiss,” embracing, as it were, the ideal to which he has
consecrated his life, and for which he has toiled and suffered till his last breath.
” The creator,” I have said, ” creates in his own image.” And in truth, our people has but
expressed itself, at its highest, in this picture of Moses. Well have the Cabbalists said that “
Moses is reincarnated in every age.”
Some hint of Moses has illumined the dark life of our people, like a spark, in every
generation. This needs no lengthy proof. We have but to open our Prayer Book, and we
shall see almost on every page how constant has been the striving after the realization of
the prophetic ideal in all its world-embracing breadth, constant throughout the blackest
periods of the Jew’s history, when his life has been most precarious and persecution has
driven him from country to country. Israel has never lived in the present. The present,
with its evil and its wickedness, has always filled us with anguish, indignation, and
bitterness. But just as constantly have we been inspired with brilliant hopes for the future,
and an ineradicable faith in the coming triumph of the good and the right ; and for these
hopes and that faith we have always sought and found support in the history of our past,
whereon our imagination has brooded, weaving all manner of fair dreams, so as to make
the past a kind of mirror of the future. Our very Hebrew language, the garment of the
Jewish spirit, has no present tense, but only a past and a future. The question has been
much debated, whether the fundamental characteristic of the Jewish spirit is optimism or
pessimism; and extreme views have been propounded on both sides. But all such
discussion is futile.
The Jew is both optimistic and pessimistic; but his pessimism has reference to the present,
his optimism to the future. This was true of the Prophets, and it is true of the people of