Moses: The Supreme Pedagogue

As Rabbi Sacks of righteous memory observed, Moses had several oratory options on the threshold of the exodus from Egypt. Moses could have delivered a Churchill-like speech, and promise the newly emancipated nation nothing but “blood, toil, sweat and tears,” in the impending military campaigns against the Amalekites and other pernicious foes of the Jewish people. Alternatively, Moses could have also addressed the people as a historian, and spoken about the tumultuous vicissitudes of Jewish history from the days of Abraham and Sarah, until the dawn of a novel and redemptive epoch of liberty and dignity at this liminal moment in Jewish history. Moses could have also spoken to the Jewish people as a political philosopher, explicating to them that their political freedom is but an a-priori spring board, en route to spiritual freedom and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai as the culmination and ultimate telos and raison d’etre of Jewish destiny. Lastly, Moses also could have spoken to the people of Israel as a prospective spiritual legislator, and shed light on the sacred dimension of Judaism as a life of disciplined and rigorous observance, of Judaism as a sacred praxis of a prescriptive ethics of existential duties and ennobling virtues and ideals.

But rather than opt for any the above oratory options, Moses addressed the people as a teacher, as an educator, and explicated to them what are the underlying reasons for which Passover will be observed for perpetuity by all future Jewish generations (today, the Passover Seder is one of the world’s foremost ancient religious “rituals,” still practiced and observed). Moses addressed the nation as a pedagogue, rather than as a military general, or as a legal codifier, because Moses understood that the sole guarantor of inter-generational Jewish continuity and contiguity is education – the empowerment of the young with passion and zeal for the Jewish spiritual vocation.

No human group had taught humanity so consistently and so tenaciously, and over so long a historical timespan, that “history has purpose, and that humanity has a destiny” (Catholic historian Paul Johnson about the Jewish people, in his magisterial “History of the Jews”). We are, observed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of righteous memory, the people whose “palaces are schools, and whose heroes are teachers.” Ours are not the silent and lifeless monuments of the pyramids or the Arc de Truimph. Ours is a civilization which sanctifies spiritual Eros, whose ultimate home is textual rather than territorial (George Steiner), whose underlying values are “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” (A.J. Heschel).

Twice during the morning service we recite psalm 20:8, which postulates that imperial worldly powers tend to anchor their hegemony and terrestrial supremacy in worldly assets (in “iron and gold,” according to Yale scholar Paul Kennedy in his seminal “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers”), whereas the Jewish people hinges its existence upon spirit and intellect, upon piety and thought, upon the power of ideas, rather than the Nietzschian idea of power and dominion over others. “If we have seen further, it is because we stood on the shoulders of giants,” observed Isaac Newton. And chief and foremost amongst these giants is Moses, the divinely ordained human agent, who delivered us from tyrannical despotism, and led us to our rendezvous with destiny on Mount Sinai, in this Shabbat’s Torah reading. Moses taught us legacy and sanctity, humility and altruism, piety and justice. And that is what, in our finest moments, we have been teaching the world ever since.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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