Wednesday, February 12, 2014

And Moses Was a Most Modest Man; An Essay on Life and Judaism by Payman Akhlaghi (2014)

And Moses Was a Most Modest Man
An Essay on Life and Judaism by Payman Akhlaghi (Draft 2)

(*) First published at on February 12th, 2014, under And Moses Was a Most Modest Man.

* This is Not a religious commentary.
* The following is not meant at all to approve of violence.

I'm contemplating the story of Moses in Exodus in regards to the nuances of his reactions toward oppression. From 2:12 to 2:17, within 5 concise verses,[1] we're told that the child grew up, came to meet his people, and saved one of them from harsh treatment by striking the oppressor and burying the body. Yet when two Hebrews were fighting one another, he spoke to them with no physical intervention, and he advised them to stop quarreling their kind. His appeal was rejected, and instead, he was threatened with revealing his secret. He runs away from the wrath of Pharaoh, ends up saving the daughters of the Priest of Midian from a gang of thugs, and helps them water their sheep.

His responses seem to be unique to each situation. In the first incident, no one else is around, so he stands up for the weak all by himself. In the second incident, two oppressed people are involved, so he can't easily take sides; instead, he resorts to mediation through conciliatory dialogue. But when women are forced aside, he steps forward to protect them even as an individual against a crowd. All three situations involve acts of altruism, devoid of self-interest; yet we should be happy that, as I've heard, Jewish commentators have rightfully objected to the extreme violence of the first incident.[2] However, the face-to-face and spontaneous nature of that act of defense, leads us to understand it in terms of what Hannah Arendt might have sympathized with in her contemplation On Violence.[3] [Cf. below for a quotation.]

We read elsewhere in the Pentateuch that "the man Moses was very modest (humble), more so than all other people on the face of the earth." (Numbers, 12:3) [4] Notwithstanding the evident discrepancies between the various sections of the Pentateuch, this description has no contradiction with Exodus 2:12ff. Here's a decent if flawed character, a man of few words, curious, honest, wary of hypocrisy, as shy as he is straightforward when it's time to claim the rights of the oppressed. He's motivated to act when lives are at risk and principles are at stake, and he resorts to violence only when all other options fail the circumstances at hand.

Moses is also an eternal outsider. In Egypt, though growing up in the court of Pharaoh, he remains conscious of his Hebrew identity. But later on, among the Midianites, he is seen as an Egyptian. The author of the story is very clear on this issue: Moses names his first son Gershom, in reference to the word "ger", i.e. an alien, a stranger, in the land of Midian. More generally, his solitude among the crowd remains one of the running themes of the entire book, to the very end of his leadership, when he disappears to die alone in the mountains.

[1] Exodus 2:12-15, Hebrew with a basic English translation:

[2] Lectures by Chacham Ouriel Davidi, Tehran, Iran, 1980's.

[3] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 1969. Here I refer to her offering an understanding of a violent act by an individual esp. when self-defense is evoked, despite her overall objection to violence, especially by the authority and state.

[3] Hannah Arendt, "On Violence", 1969.

NB: Here I refer to her offering an understanding of a violent act by an individual esp. when (as I understand) self-defense warrants it, despite her overall objection to violence, especially by those in power, authority, and state.

The following is a passage relevant to this argument. Note that I think she seems biased by the long-standing association of "masculinity and violence". An assertive state, for instance, could be quite masculine yet non-violent, and self-control can be viewed by, say, a culture as even more masculine than acting out of rage. Nevertheless, note how she understands a complex situation in her eloquent words:

"To act with deliberate speed goes against the grain of rage and violence, but this does not make them irrational. On the contrary, in private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this permits us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or slamming the door. The point is that under certain circumstances. violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd, striking dead the man who bore false witness against him, is the classical example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes—not always—goes with it belong among the "natural" human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him. That such acts, in which men take the law into their own hands for justice's sake, are in conflict with the constitutions of civilized communities is undeniable; but their antipolitical character, so manifest in Melville's great story, does not mean that they are inhuman or "merely" emotional."

[Arendt, Hannah (1970-03-11). On Violence (Harvest Book) (p. 64). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

[4] Numbers, 12:3, Hebrew with an English translation:

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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