August 2019: Staff Development

Teaching with Clarity and Empathy (Moses Reluctantly Becomes a “Nursing-Father”)


This essay derives from an address delivered on June 10, 1974, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rabbi Israel Klavan as the Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Council of America. It was published in Reflections of the Rav, Lessons in Jewish Thought, by Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin.

Teaching involves more than the transmission of knowledge and understanding. It requires an empathy between teacher and student, and a sharing of feelings, thoughts, and motives. There is an interaction of personalities, an exchange of values and insights.

Moses, as the teacher par excellence, became aware of this broader understanding of the teaching role after the kivrot hata’avah episode (Num. chap. 11), when he was called upon to become an omen, a “nursing-father,” of the newly-founded people. We see this change reflected in Moses’ different reactions to the two major sins of the children of Israel in the desert-the egel hazahav (Ex. chap. 32) and the kivrot hata’avah.

Moses responded to the egel hazahav episode resolutely, pleading for Divine forgiveness and dealing forthrightly with the people. Their backsliding into idol worship so soon after the Revelation was a most serious crisis which actually threatened to terminate the relationship between God and Israel. “And the Lord said to Moses … Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them; and make of you a great nation” (Ex. 32: 9, 10).

Faced with this danger, Moses did not panic. He steadfastly and heroically petitioned the Almighty for forgiveness (Vayechal Moshe), arguing the case of the people like a defense attorney. Chazal suggest that the word vayechal (and he prayed), instead of vayitpallel or vayitchanen, signifies elements of strength, boldness, persistence and daring. There is bold prayer and there is humble prayer; here we have bold prayer, as the Midrash portrays metaphorically: “It is as if Moses were holding on to God, like a person seizing hold of someone’s garment, and saying, Master of the Universe! I will not release You until You forgive Israel” (Ber. 32a).

After the kivrot hata’avah, on the other hand, Moses complained bitterly of his wretched lot. Instead of defending the people, he seemed to be accusing them. “And Moses said to the Lord: ‘Why have you dealt ill with Your servant? And why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people? Did I give birth to them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing-father carries a suckling child” to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers … I am not able to carry the burden of this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. If You deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, if I have found favor in Your sight; and let me see no more of my wretchedness…’ (Num. 11: 11-15).

It is simply unlike Moses to become so shaken, so despondent and complaining, to condemn the people out of the depths of resignation. He prefers to be relieved of further leadership; he does not intercede for the people and he even prefers death to further responsibility. Never before had he uttered such words, although the Israelites had rebelled on many other occasions.

“Why have You dealt ill with Your servant?”, is reminiscent of a similar expression by Moses when, as a novice on his first mission to Pharaoh, he had suffered frustration. On that occasion, his initial intervention had caused Pharaoh to intensify the severity of Israel’s servitude, whereupon Moses complained to God: “Lord, why have You brought harm upon this people? Why did You send me?” (Ex. 5: 22). This was the complaint of a young, inexperienced man, early in his career, who overzealously expected immediate and dramatic results. Moses, however, never again posed this question or gave vent to such a mood until the episode of the kivrot hata’avah.

It is also difficult to understand precisely why the sin of kivrot hata’avah evoked such an extreme reaction from Moses. With respect to the other sins-the egel hazahav, the meraglim, Ba’al Peor, the immorality of Midian-we know clearly what happened. But what took place at kivrot hata’avah is unclear. Superficially, it is the story of a people who were overwhelmed with desire for meat, seemingly a relatively minor infraction. No serious crimes, such as idol worship, murder or sexual immorality, had been committed. Their protests were neither raucous nor violent and threatening. They complained bitterly, nothing more; yet their punishment was cruelly severe. They had aroused God’s wrath and Moses. too, resented and denounced their backsliding: “The Lord was very angry and Moses was distressed” (Num. 11: 10). What truly constituted the sin which warranted such harsh retribution?

A Contrast Between Egel Hazahav and Kivrot Hata’avah

Moses regarded the golden calf sin as resulting from the terrifying primitive fears of the people. Having miscalculated, they feared that Moses was dead (Shah. 89a; Rashi, Ex. 32:1). They were terrified of being abandoned in the desert. To them the calf was a substitute for Moses. They were misled by the erev rav, the “mixed multitude” of gentile sympathizers who had left Egypt with them. Although they had succumbed to idol worship, there were mitigating circumstances in their conduct.

A brief analysis of idolatry, avodah zarah would be helpful. (See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, 1:1.2, regarding the development of idol worship.) There is what we call idolatry, which signifies actual worship, ritual and cultic performances, specific acts to propitiate deities resumed to reside within the idols or to be represented by them. In addition. there is also the paganism that involves a cultural system, a manner of living. Our Sages were convinced that idol worship inevitably leads to paganism, that worship influences a society’s way of life. Yet paganism can persist even after idol worship has been discarded. The Iater Greeks and Romans, having cast aside idol worship, still lived as pagans, with a pagan life-style and value system. In our day, with idol worship no longer in existence, paganism is still rampant.

What is paganism and how does it contrast with the Torah hashkafah (outlook)? The pagan worships deities which represent forces in nature. These deities are themselves without moral norms, and they make no demand of man beyond specific acts of propitiation. For man lustily to partake of nature is, therefore, an act of identifying with such gods. Man actually sees himself as coextensive to nature and therefore craves unlimited indulgence. In Judaism, man’s Divine image manifests itself precisely in his self-control, the subordination of his craving and lust to the will of God. It is God the Creator who is to be worshipped, not nature which is merely a creation. To worship God is to submit to a code of “do’s and don’ts”; to worship nature is to abandon all norms and restrictions, and to regard all that is possible as permissible, to acknowledge no restraints in the human appetite. The antithesis of paganism is expressed in the verse, “And follow not the desires of your heart and your eyes, which lead you astray’’ (Num. 15: 39).

The Torah detested the pagan way of life even more than it hated idol worship. The latter is short-lived; even the Greeks and Romans eventually lost faith in it. It eventually collapses; one can teach, persuade, and enlighten against its validity. Yet paganism has a tremendous hold on people long after actual idol worship has been discarded. The sin of the golden calf was idol worship; God’s covenant with Israel was almost lost because of it.

The kivrot hata’avah episode, however, revealed that, even without idol worship, paganism still exercised its hold upon the people, a vestigial remnant of their long stay in Egypt. The Torah describes the gathering of the quails-an insatiable accumulation of property and the gratification of hungry senses, cl1aracteristic of paganism. “And the people rose up all that day and all the night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails; he that gathered least, gathered ten heaps; and they spread them out all around the camp” (ibid. 11 :32). We have here desire gone berserk, a craving without any restraint.

The text speaks only of the unlimited gathering of quails. Our Sages, however, tell us that this was a rebellion against all inhibitions. It expressed itself in a repudiation of the sexual code just recently prescribed at Mt. Sinai. On the verse, “And they journeyed from God’s mountain” (ibid. 10:33), the Sages add: “What does God’s mountain [symbolically] signify?” R. Chama, son of Chanina, explained that they turned away from the restrictive disciplines which Sinai had imposed upon them (Shab. 116a), and the Tanchuma adds, “as a child runs away from school to avoid studying the Torah.”

Their complaint, “Who shall give us flesh?” (ibid. 11:4), was merely a pretext, Rashi explains, since they owned large herds of cattle.Perhaps “flesh” is here a euphemism for that which is sensual. The phrase, “we remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt” (ibid. v. 5), our Sages explain, refers to sexual immorality, the licentiousness which the Torah now restricted, since fish have a prodigious proliferating capacity. When “Moses heard the people weep among their families” (ibid. v. 10), the people were wailing, explains Rashi, because of family matters, because the intermarriage of blood relatives was now forbidden to them.

The Oral tradition, as expressed by our Sages, understood kivrot hata’avah as an orgy of the senses, an idolization of unrestricted indulgence. The episode of kivrot hata’avah may be contrasted with the Torah approach to self-indulgence, illustrated in the story of the manna. This comparison is even suggested by the text: “Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all, nothing but this manna to look to” (ibid. v. 6).  Regarding the manna, we read in Exodus (16: 16-18): “Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent. … he who had gathered much had no excess and he who had gathered little had no lack; they had gathered as much as they needed to eat.”We have here controlled acquisition, disciplined indulgence, and a mastering of one’s cravings. Such is the Torah approach to material indulgence.

The Changed Role of Moses

Moses had been chosen to be a Rebbe (teacher) of Klal Yisrael, while Aaron was to be the diplomat, the negotiator. When Moses asked, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex. 3: 11), he was doubting his qualifications to deal with protocol and royalty. God replied: Your primary role, Moses, is that of a spiritual and moral teacher, a pedagogue of Torah and Halachah, to prepare the people to receive and become committed to the Revelation. I can find negotiators elsewhere. You were chosen because the main purpose of the Exodus is not the attainment of political freedom but the conversion of a slave society into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh, and in that role you excel. You are a Rebbe par excellence.Moses understood this to be his responsibility and be accepted the mandate.

At the egel hazahav, Moses reacted as a teacher. His forceful pronouncements, the powerful impact of the shattering of the luchot (two Tablets of the Law), the death of the perpetrators – all this, Moses hoped, would forever eradicate idol worship from Israel. Idolatry was, after all, a deviationist mode of worship and its vacuity and futility are demonstrable. Eventually, it collapses and is discarded as people come to realize its untenability. Effective pedagogy is all that is needed and, for this teaching role, Moses regarded himself as qualified.

Kivrot hata’avah, however, was not idol worship but paganism. The latter is peritzut, unlimited lust, sexual wantonness, boundless desire, and sensual indulgence-the hypnotic and the orgiastic, what the Greeks meant by hedone. One can argue and persuade effectively against idol worship; but what does one do with paganism, which is morally nihilistic? It is not a competitive and alternative discipline; it is no discipline at all. How does one teach the superiority of a restrictive but ennobling system which wants man to identify with God, not to be a child of nature? In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam and Eve to engage in selective indulgence and to maintain self-control over their appetites. To  counter paganism, as in the kivrot hata’avah episode, the teacher role is insufficient; Moses was now commanded to become an omen, a nursing father, a role that he bitterly resisted.

A review of Moses’ lament (Num. 11: 11-15) indicates that the key words of his protest were “carry them in your bosom, as a nursing-father carries a suckling child” (11 :12) -a role that Moses never wanted to assume, which he now found thrust upon him, as the people succumbed to childlike impulses of unrestrained wanting and plaintive wailing.

What is the difference between a teacher and nursing-father (or mother)? A teacher instructs a child and a nursing mother also teaches a child. The latter, however, in addition to teaching, also carries the child in her bosom, bechekecha; she submerges her identity in that of the child, making her own ambitions secondary or nullifying them completely. The needs of the child take precedence over her own life and she becomes one with the child and finds fulfillment through him. There is an emotional fusion of two identities. A teacher, however, retains his own identity and personality; his is an intellectual communication of specific knowledge.

Moses now became aware that being a teacher was not enough for a leader of Israel, a manhig Yisrael. The people, in its early formative years, needed him as a baby needs a nursing mother; they were temperamental, impulsive, filled with uncontrollable desires, restively murmuring. Their complaints were primarily pretexts, mevakeshim alilah (Rashi, ibid. v. 1). Moses doubted his capacity to become an omen; he knew that, in this role, he would be totally submerged in his work. He would not only have to teach and command, but also guide, train, and transform a people inclined to paganism into an am segulah. Besides teaching, he would have to reach out emotionally to the people, nurture them through their national infancy, with patient, sympathetic understanding and empathy, as a nursing-father would do. Indeed, as a private individual with a family, personal needs, and pleasures, he would no longer exist; his happiness and fulfillment would no longer be with his wife, children, and personal ambitions. This sacrifice was not expected of other Jewish leaders; his was a one-time historical necessity, an all-consuming responsibility. He was to be totally absorbed in his mission. He was the av hanevi’im, forced to withdraw from his ordinary preoccupations and attachments in order to nurture a people in its formative years, a people cardinally important to the Almighty’s plan for the world. For this role of an omen, Moses felt unqualified, even as he realized that the paganism of kivrot hata’avah required this kind of painstaking nurturing; teaching was simply not enough.

Our age is demonstrably pagan, without idol worship as such. It consists of uninhibited peritzut (indulgence). The teaching role may have been sufficient in the past to counter the allurements of other religions, philosophies, and the pseudo-ideologies which still abound nowadays. We could teach and demonstrate the greater credibility of our own way of life; but the paganism of our day requires that elements of the omen, the nursing-father, be combined with the teaching role, particularly since the emotional and introspective element is so pronounced in contemporary human relationships. What we require is the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea; sympathetic understanding, true befriending, and a human reaching out; a suggestion to our modern mitonenim (restless, complaining ones) that “we care”; the teaching role is inadequate.

This is admittedly a demanding responsibility. We need not emulate Moses’ total self-effacement, but aspects of the omen are necessary. We must have, in addition to teaching: dedication, personal commitment, for otherwise the burden is unbearable; selflessness, a readiness to subordinate personal career and egotistical ambitions; and empathy, an ability to teach with feeling, not only with clarity. All this must be pursued with dignity and self-respect, rather than shallow sentimentality.