Eikev: Joshua Rebukes Moses

I am Joshua ben Nun; orphaned in Egypt—my parents perished while building the pyramids that dotted the Valley of the Kings. It was Jochebed, mother of Moses, who took me in, may she rest in peace. I recall being a small child, when Moses was already a teenager—Jochebed often took me to the Pharaoh’s Palace to visit him. I thought of him as a mix of an older brother and a kindly uncle. I wept when she told me Moses that had fled from Egypt, fearful of the punishment that would follow his having killed a slave driver.

Moses has been my mentor and guide for all these years in the Wilderness; I was fortunate to be with him when he climbed Mt. Sinai, there to commune with the Almighty and receive the Ten Commandments. I did not join him on the mountaintop; I hid amid the boulders along the path. There, I witnessed the battle between Moses and the Angels who did not wish to relinquish the Torah, until God intervened.

The Generation of the Exodus is gone; now, he and I lead the Generation of the Wilderness. I was happy to hear that My Lord Moses wished to teach Torah to these youngsters. He and I had had such high hopes for them! After all, they were not tainted by the slavery experience; they had been nurtured in freedom, under God’s protection, who fed them with manna, and so much more. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for headstrong young people to spurn their elders’ instruction, and these Israelites had not hesitated to participate in the riotous orgy brought on the Midianites and their god, Baal Peor. Sadly, many of them paid for their sins with their lives.

Nonetheless, could there not be a time for reconciliation? I looked forward eagerly to Moses’s Torah lecture; surely he would find a way to make peace between the people and their somewhat testy deity. Was He not a God full of mercy and compassion, extending forgiveness to the thousandth generation? Instead, Moses lectured them about their backsliding:

“If you do forget the LORD your GOD and follow other gods to serve them… I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish… because you did not heed the Lord your God.”

–Deut. 8:19-20

And that was not all: Moses recounted all of their sins for them, and laid it on very thick. It disturbed and frightened me.

When Moses was done with his teaching, bitter as it was, I gave him my strong right arm on which to lean, as I escorted him to his tent.

“What think you of my address to the people, hey Joshua?” Moses asked me.

“May I speak frankly, My Lord?” I answered. When he nodded, I responded to him quickly and precisely: “It seems to me, Rabbi Moses, that you might have sweetened your words a little. When I behold this people, the work of God’s hands, I consider that they are unlettered, unsophisticated—have they not been living in the wilderness for all of their lives? Since their parents perished in this great and savage desert, they have no one except you, Sir, to teach them the proper way for Jews to live.”

Moses stopped walking, and looked directly at me: I swear, it was as though he could see straight into my heart and soul. “You are right, my disciple, to question me; never fear—I am not angry. Yes, you are right; I did speak harshly with the people. But life is very hard, and one must be steeled to difficulties in order to overcome them. Hear me, Young Joshua: in days to come, there will be many Jews who behave un-Jewishly, who cheat and lie and forget their heritage. My duty is to warn them of the consequences. And those who heed me will understand how to act.”

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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