The Signs of Moses

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin






The Signs of Moses

by Rav Jonathan Mishkin



"Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom Hashem singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that Hashem sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel" (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).


            With this epitaph, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, ends.  The first teacher of the Jews, their first political leader, has passed away as the nation is on the verge of entering the Land of Israel.  Moses was not the first prophet the world had seen, but the Torah makes the bold and unusual statement that there will never be another prophet like him.  (In this essay, I use the term "prophet" to mean anybody to whom God speaks- whether or not the person is then required to relate a message to others.  Adam, Noach, Abraham are among the first prophets.)


            In contrast, at Abraham's death the Torah merely relates:


This was the total span of Abraham's life: one hundred and seventy- five years.  And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his kin.  His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Genesis 25:7-9)


A few words of Abraham's importance to the Jewish people would have been nice - perhaps something mentioning that he was the first with whom God struck the covenant that binds Him to Israel, or maybe a reflection on Abraham's complete faith in God as seen in his obedience at God's command to move from Aram to Israel or with regard to Binding of Isaac.


            Let us jump ahead to the death of David, who, while not the first king of Israel, is traditionally considered our nation's greatest monarch.  When he dies in I Kings chapter 2, the Bible merely lists the years of his reign and moves on to Solomon.  David's importance is codified in the second to last of Maimonides' (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon 12th century) thirteen principles of faith, which declares hope in the Messiah:


Included in this principle is the belief that a Jewish king can only come from the family of David through his son Solomon.  One who rejects this family denies God and His prophets.


As for Abraham, Maimonides positions him as a role model too, declaring in the Laws of Repentance 10:2 that Abraham attained the highest standard in the service of God because he served Him out of love and not fear.


When Abraham dies the Torah feels no need to sum up his dramatic life with any sort of praise, nor does the author of the Book of Kings exhibit such an urge with regard to David.  Why, on the other hand, does God conclude the Torah with a declaration that none will surpass Moses?  Two quick answers come to mind.


1. 4/5 of the Torah revolves around Moses.  He was the human leader and teacher who helped shape the nation of Israel.  Without him, the story of the Exodus and Revelation would be very different.  He, more than anyone - even Abraham and David - was God's agent in founding the nation.  He deserves some final words of respect.


2. Furthermore, the Torah has basically one goal - to describe God's law to the Jews.  Moses was instrumental in delivering that law and in recording and transmitting it to the people.  The Torah self-servingly affirms the greatness of Moses, since by declaring that there will never be another Moses, it is actually stating that the Torah itself is unsurpassable and immutable.


            The problems that these two ideas raise should be obvious if we read those last three verses closely.  After the Torah says that Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived, it goes on to say that the miracles he performed were unequalled.  Was that Moses' legacy - that he was able to defeat Pharaoh?  We could easily understand the Torah's need to defend Moses' message as the greatest ever to be delivered into the hands of man, but why say that his greatness was "the various signs and portents" he displayed?  Furthermore, why would the Torah say that there would never arise another who will perform such wonders?  Is it not possible that the Jewish people will someday need a prophet who can manipulate the forces of nature?  Was not Elijah's feat on Mount Carmel a powerful display that convinced the masses that Hashem is God, thereby rejecting idolatry?  Lastly, why should Moses be remembered as a miracle man when the Torah makes it quite clear throughout the Egypt and desert experiences, that Moses was really only acting as God's front man and that it was God who was the force behind the words.  "For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is NONE LIKE ME IN ALL THE WORLD."  (Exodus 9:14)


            In order to understand why the Torah concludes by emphasizing the greatness of Moses' miracles, we really need to investigate what the nature and indeed the purposes of those miracles were.  In Exodus chapters 3 and 4 Moses is approached by God to return to Egypt from Midian and lead the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land.  Moses is reluctant to take the job, presenting several arguments for his unsuitability.  One of his protests is that the people will not trust that he is a messenger of God.  "What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: Hashem did not appear to you?"(Exodus 4:1).  As encouragement, God gives Moses the power to perform three signs: he learns to change his staff to a snake and back to a stick; he can make his hand leprous by putting it inside his shirt; and God tells him that if he pours a little of the Nile's water on the ground it will become blood.  When Moses does confront his people accompanied by his brother Aaron, he displays the signs to them and the people were convinced (Exodus 4:30).  Pharaoh, of course, is harder to persuade, when shown these miracles in chapter 7, but let us focus on the Hebrews for the moment.


             Suffering under the Egyptian oppression, the Jews can only remember the ancient promises that God made to their ancestors.  They have had no previous indication that God is in their midst and it makes sense that some oracle would be necessary to show that the appearance of Moses is not a ploy to take advantage of the helpless.  That they believe the signs and are prepared to trust Moses is logical- this man represents the God they have heard about, and a way out of their pain.  But Maimonides says that this is not so: 


Israel did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the tokens he showed.  For when one's faith is founded on tokens, a lurking doubt always remains in the mind that these tokens may have been performed with the aid of the occult arts and witchcraft. (Laws Concerning the Basic Principles of the Torah 8:1).


  Indeed, in Exodus chapter 7, when Moses transforms his staff into a serpent and the Nile's waters into blood, Pharaoh's sorcerers have little trouble duplicating these tricks.  Were any Israelites present at those sessions, would their faith in Moses have remained as strong?


             It is Maimonides' position that these initial signs were only an introduction to the validity of Moses as an emissary of God and they were never intended to be the sole signal that he speaks for Hashem.  Changing a stick into a serpent before the people was meant as a first stage in establishing Moses' credibility.  Based solely on those three manipulations of nature, Moses would never have been able to guide the nation or instruct them in the law of Hashem, nor would he have had the right to expect Israel to follow his commandments.  The nation's experience at Sinai was the critical moment when the entire people heard the voice of God for themselves.  Once they witnessed the revelation, all of Moses' claims of being an agent of God were substantiated and from that point on there was no further need for signs or miracles to prove that what Moses spoke was a message from God.


            Here is Maimonides' understanding of the initial encounter between God and Moses.  Recall that before God teaches him the three signs, He informs Moses that the first destination after the Exodus will be Mount Sinai.  Maimonides in chapter 8:2 of Principles of the Torah interprets Exodus 3:11-12: 


The Almighty indicated this to Moses at the beginning of the latter's career, when he gave him signs which he was to perform in Egypt, and said to him, "They shall hearken to thy voice" (Ex. 3:18).  Moses realized that belief based on signs leaves lurking doubts and is followed by musings and speculation.  He therefore sought to avoid the acceptance of his mission, and said, "But lo, they will not believe me" (Ex. 4:1), until the Almighty informed him that these signs were only to serve until our ancestors had departed from Egypt. "And when they will have gone forth and stand at the foot of this mountain," God said to Moses, "their doubts about you will disappear.  For here, I will give the a sign by which they will know that it was I who sent thee from the first, and no vestige of doubt will linger in their mind."  And this is what is meant in the text, "And this shall be a token for you that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God at this mountain" (Ex 3:12).


             Maimonides' idea is picked up by a later philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Albo (14th century Spain).  In the first part of his book Sefer HaIkarim (The Book of Principles- chapter 18), Albo argues that all the miracles done by Moses preceding Sinai only increased the chances that he was a true prophet but did not prove it.  Before Revelation, it made sense for the people to follow Moses and to believe that he was a righteous servant of God who was worthy of miracles being done via his hand.  But that level is still a long way from the ability to carry a divine message.  As Albo points out, there are great people who merit the power of miracles without being prophets - Chananya, Mishael and Azaria for example, in the Bible; Choni HaMa'agel (Ta'anit 29a) and Rabbi Eliezer (Bava Metzia 59b) in the Talmud.


             When the Children of Israel witness the splitting of the sea, the Torah relates: "And when Israel saw the wondrous power which Hashem had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared Hashem; they had faith in Hashem and His servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31).  They trusted that their leader was a conduit for the power of God.  But the Revelation at Sinai, attended by the entire nation, proved both that God communicates to man; and that Moses was a recipient of that communication.  The people's reaction is reported in Deuteronomy 5:21-24. 


Hashem our God has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him.... You [Moses] go closer and hear all that Hashem our God says, and then you tell us everything that Hashem our God tells you, and we will willingly do it.


            Both Maimonides and Albo recognize that Moses was the only prophet who enjoyed divine confirmation of his holiness.  Any future prophet will have to endure the doubts of the people.  His or her (for there were women prophetesses) signs may be seen as tricks or witchcraft; or, if taken as legitimate indications that God is behind the individual, will not prove that God speaks to this person as well.  So what to do?  How should the people react when a person shows up and is capable of calling fire from the sky (Elijah), raising the dead (Elijah and Elisha), surviving a den of lions (Daniel) or escaping the belly of a great fish (Jonah)?  Should we believe them when they also claim to have a message from God?  The Torah says we should:


I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). 


The words of a self-proclaimed prophet must be heeded unless the message is to worship idolatry (see Deuteronomy 13:2-6) or involves direct violation of the Torah, since the Torah represents Moses' domain; and his prophecy, unlike the new prophet's, was authenticated by God himself.  (TEMPORARY suspension of a Torah law by a prophet is allowed, again - save idolatry.)


            This may be the meaning behind the last three verses in the Torah.  The emphasis on Moses' signs and portents relates directly to the strength of his message - the immutability of the Torah.  The miracles performed by Moses are superior to all others, says Albo (III 10), because they were more numerous, were performed in public, and lasted longer - for forty years.  Perhaps the intensity of Moses' miracles was in direct proportion to the accompanying affirmation that God was communicating to him.  There will be other prophets who will display miracles but none will be accompanied by public divine verification.  Because of this, the impressiveness of future signs will be muted.  There will never arise a prophet who has the "great might and awesome power" of Moses because no prophet will ever challenge or replace the message given to him- the Torah.  The Law was given once and all future communications will be measured next to it.  Were future prophets able to imitate the power of Moses' miracles the nation would perhaps expect a second revelation confirming the new divine statements.  No such experience will be forthcoming, so no portents will ever signal it.


             Why doesn't the Torah just end by stating that there will never be another message like Moses'?  The only real point of comparison between Moses and future prophets is the miracles they perform.  Other prophets may legitimately report the word of God but their words might be a political statement, a warning, a rebuke.  The apparent commonality between Moses and other prophets is their signs, but later miracles won't come with God's explicit stamp of approval.  In a sense, Moses' epitaph is somewhat discouraging.  The Torah states that with the changing of the guard, the nation is on its own.  Trusting future miracles is a challenge of faith.


            In this vein, I offer two other meanings of our verses.  Besides being used to establish Moses as a messenger of God, the miracles performed by God in the time of Moses were used to show God's power in the world, His control of nature and history.  The Torah states at its end, that God will no longer act in the world to prove His existence.  There will never be a prophet who like Moses stood before Pharaoh to argue that man's plans cannot stand up to God's might.  The reality of an omnipotent power has been proven once.  Future generations will have to rely on the strength of their tradition.


            Maimonides (Principles 8:1) writes that Moses' miracles were utilitarian - the Israelites needed to escape from the Egyptians, so Moses split the sea.  After Moses, the nation in the land of Israel will be able to take care of itself, and any divine assistance will be hidden.  Bread will not fall from the sky and water will not flow from rocks.


            With the death of Moses, an era has come to an end.  Joshua's ascension marks the start of a more natural state.  The historical experiences of the Exodus and the Revelation will have to serve as the basis for continuing faith, but they will not be repeated.  There might be an occasional unusual event, but know, says the Torah, that while God may momentarily suspend the laws of nature, that is as far as He will go.  Future Jews may reach the faith of Abraham or the leadership of David, but nobody's miracles will reflect the authority that Moses' did.