Torah for the Average

Dena Weiss

Parashat BeHa'alotekha

The beginning of this week’s parashah focuses on the menorah, the lamp that Aharon and his descendants would prepare and light and that Moshe and his builders would construct. The menorah was very intricate, and according to R. Akiva, it was particularly difficult for Moshe to visualize and understand:

ספרי בהעלתך פרשה ג
וְזֶה מַעֲשֵׂה הַמְּנֹרָה מִקְשָׁה זָהָב עַד יְרֵכָהּ עַד פִּרְחָהּ מִקְשָׁה הִוא- כַּמַּרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר הֶרְאָה ה' אֶת מֹשֶׁה כֵּן עָשָׂה אֶת הַמְּנֹרָה (במדבר ח:ד). ר' עקיבא אומר זה אחד משלשה דברים שנתקשה בהם משה והראה לו הקב”ה באצבע. כיוצא בזה אתה אומר החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים (שמות יב:ב). כיוצא בו אתה אומר וזה לכם הטמא (ויקרא יא:כט).


Sifrei BeHa’alotkha 3
This is how the menorah should be made hammered gold from its base to its ornamental flowers it should be hammered. According to the image that God showed Moshe, so he made the menorah. R. Akiva says: This is one of three things that Moshe found difficult, and God demonstrated to Moshe with His finger. Similarly, you would say [that this is so regarding] This will be the first of the months (Shemot 12:2). Similarly, you would say [that this is so regarding] This will be impure to you (VaYikra 11:29).


In this midrash, R. Akiva ascribes a very specific function and meaning to the demonstrative zeh, “this.” He teaches that when the Torah uses the word zeh, it suggests that there was an actual object or representation of an object that is being pointed to.1 Moshe was shown the sliver of the new moon, Moshe was shown the contours of a sheretz,2 and Moshe was shown the shape of the menorah. Each time, God pointed, as it were, as if to say, “this is what I was referring to.”

R. Akiva’s statement is not only a set of examples where the Torah uses the word zeh. His statement also compiles a list of instances when Moshe Rabbeinu, the man who received the Torah and taught it to the people, had difficulty understanding what he was learning. And even more importantly, R. Akiva’s statement shows that every single time that Moshe had difficulty understanding, God demonstrated what Moshe needed to know, patiently constructing and implementing a visual representation so that Moshe could see it and reference it in his attempt to comprehend what he was being taught.

The image of Moshe as a struggling learner repeats itself in a touching story where Moshe becomes R. Akiva’s student in a time-travelling visit to R. Akiva’s yeshivah:

תלמוד בבלי מנחות כט:
בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות. אמר לפניו: רבש"ע, מי מעכב על ידך? אמר לו: אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות. אמר לפניו :רבש"ע, הראהו לי! אמר לו חזור לאחורך. הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו. כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו: רבי מנין לך? אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני. נתיישבה דעתו…


Talmud Bavli Menahot 29b
At the time that Moshe went up to heaven, he saw God sitting and tying crowns to the letters. [Moshe] said to [God]: Master of the Universe! Who is forcing You to do this?! [God] said to him: There is a person who will be in the future, at the end of many generations, and his name is Akiva ben Yosef, who will eventually interpret from each little point piles and piles of laws. [Moshe] said to [God]: Master of the Universe, show him to me! [God] said to him: Return behind you. [Moshe] went and he sat at the end of eight rows and did not know what they were saying. He became dispirited. When [R. Akiva] got to a specific item, his students said to him: Rabbi, how do you know this? He said to them: It’s a tradition from Moshe from Sinai. And [Moshe] was comforted…


In this story, we encounter R. Akiva’s great brilliance and creativity. We see him deriving new laws in complex ways and sitting at the head of his own academy, even though he came to learning later in life.3 But in this story, we also see Moshe as a student. In the rabbinic academies in Babylonia, students were seated according to seniority. Moshe is a back row, a back-of-the-class student. Moshe is completely flummoxed by what is going on in the lesson. When R. Akiva cites Moshe as an authority, the story testifies that Moshe is comforted. Yet this happy ending obscures the fact that Moshe still doesn’t comprehend what was being taught. R. Akiva succeeds in making Moshe feel better, but it is not the case that Moshe understands. He leaves just as confused as when he enters.

And it is not only R. Akiva and the stories about him which imply that Moshe struggled with certain areas of Torah law. In fact, Moshe is portrayed as having difficulty learning throughout Rabbinic literature:

שמות רבה מא:ו
ויתן אל משה (שמות לא:יח). אמר רבי אבהו: כל יום שעשה משה למעלה היה למד תורה ושוכח, אמר לו רבון העולם יש לי מ' יום ואיני יודע דבר! מה עשה הקב"ה? משהשלים מ' יום נתן לו הקב"ה את התורה מתנה, שנאמר ויתן אל משה.


Shemot Rabbah 41:6
And He gave to Moshe (Shemot 31:18). R. Abahu said: Every day that Moshe was on high, he would learn Torah and then forget it. [Moshe] said to [God]: Master of the Universe! I have [only] forty days, and I still don't know a thing! What did The Holy Blessed One do? When [Moshe] completed forty days, the Holy Blessed One gave him the Torah as a gift, as it says, And He gave to Moshe.


According to R. Abahu, Moshe’s path as a learner was strewn with difficulties. He studied and studied the Torah, but still was unable to retain the information. The panic that Moshe feels as he is running out of time to master the material is palpable and familiar. God helps Moshe by giving him the Torah because Moshe was unable to master the Torah on his own.

Moshe is never described by the narrator of the Torah nor by any of its characters as being particularly intelligent or clever or insightful. In fact, when we read the text looking for signs of Moshe’s intellectual capabilities, it appears that Moshe is average. We see this come to the fore in Moshe’s struggling as a judge of the people. The judicial system that Moshe sets up is inefficient. Yitro, his father-in-law steps in to help Moshe retool the justice system in a way that will better serve the people.4 Moshe’s wisdom lies in his willingness to take his father-in-law’s advice, not in his ability to devise the best solution on his own. 

Later in this week’s parashah, Eldad and Meidad and Aharon and Miriam5 challenge Moshe’s authority as a prophet and, later in Sefer BeMidbar, Korah, Datan, and Aviram challenge Moshe’s authority as a leader. Perhaps there were so many challenges to Moshe because he did not seem like a compelling and obvious choice. Moshe wasn’t clever or charming. Moshe was not incisive or impressive. Moshe was just Moshe.

To argue that Moshe is not particularly intelligent is not an attempt to disparage Moshe or to make Moshe seem less than worthy. Absolutely no one is more worthy than Moshe. Moshe is not especially intelligent, and nevertheless he is the greatest leader and teacher that the Jewish people will ever have. This teaches us that being smart or clever is not as important as it is perceived to be. Although Aharon and Miriam speak ill of Moshe, the Torah testifies that Moshe is the most exceedingly humble person of anyone who has ever lived on earth, וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָיו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.6 When God responds to Aharon and Miriam’s critique of Moshe, He says that, unlike with them, He speaks to Moshe directly, and that Moshe is the most reliable of His servants, לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא.7 

God’s reply here underscores that Moshe is chosen because he is humble and because he is trustworthy. Moshe is not given the Torah because he is incredibly sophisticated or because he is a genius. Not only was Moshe in the back row of R. Akiva’s classroom, not understanding what was being taught, but he was probably never at the head of the class. At the beginning of Sefer VaYikra, Rashi8 comments that God paused between the different instructions He was giving Moshe so that Moshe would have time to concentrate and review in between each of the commands. These are the learning needs of a regular person, not of a phenom.

God could have given the Torah to and through someone else, someone who was a little bit sharper, someone who was strategic like Yosef, or crafty like Ya’akov. But God gave the Torah to Moshe because Moshe was someone who feared God and loved God’s people, because Moshe was someone who really wanted to receive the Torah and was willing to put in the effort that it would take to deserve it. Maybe Moshe wouldn’t learn the Torah quickly, but Moshe would understand what it means to keep and treasure it. Perhaps if Moshe had been a genius, God would have had to give the Torah through someone else.

If God had given the Torah to someone for whom learning came easily, He would be giving the Torah to someone for whom teaching would be hard. Someone who would be impatient with people who are slow to understand, someone who might not be willing to review the teachings again and again.9 Moshe was capable of reaching people who were like him. Moshe would keep on scaling the mountain and coming back down. The Midrash Tanhuma demonstrates how God models giving the Torah to each individual in a way that they could understand:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) שמות כה
היאך הקול יוצא, אצל כל ישראל כל אחד ואחד לפי כחו, הזקנים לפי כחן, הבחורים לפי כחן, והקטנים לפי כחן, והיונקים לפי כחן, והנשים לפי כחן, ואף משה לפי כחו, שנאמר (שמות יט:יט) משה ידבר והאלקים יעננו בקול, בקול שהיה יכול לסובלו, וכה"א (תהלים כט:ד) קול ה' בכח, בכחו לא נאמר אלא בכח, בכחו של כל אחד ואחד, ואף נשים מעוברות לפי כחן, הוי אומר כל אחד ואחד לפי כחו.


Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw) Shemot 25
And how did the voice emerge? To all of Israel, each individual according to his ability. The elders according to their ability, the young men according to their ability, the little kids according to their ability, the infants according to their ability, the women according to their ability, and even Moshe according to his ability. As it says, Moshe would speak and God would respond in the voice (Shemot 19:19)—in the voice that he could bear. And it says, The voice of God is in power (Tehillim 29:4), not in His power, but power—the power/ability of each individual. And even pregnant women according to their ability, that is to say—all of Israel, each individual according to his ability.


When this midrash constructs its scale of learners, it starts with the sages at the top and puts Moshe at the bottom of the ladder, even after young children. God models a preference for differentiated learning in giving the Torah in a way that corresponds to the capacity and needs of each person. By putting Moshe in charge of continuing to teach, God ensures that access to the Torah will not be restricted to the wisest and most capable. By putting Moshe in charge of the Torah, God was emphasizing that humility is not only critical to learning, but also essential to teaching.

Moshe valued good character and love of God over intellectual achievement. To study His Torah, one needs to understand that the Torah is not primarily designed to make a person knowledgeable, smart, and sophisticated. Rather, it exists in order to make people good, faithful, and loving. Becoming a scholar, a talmid hakham is a byproduct of learning a lot of Torah; it is not the goal of Torah study. Smarts are a tool that can be used to receive the Torah, to learn the Torah, and to teach the Torah, but they are only a means to a different end. Moshe Rabbeinu taught us that integrity, devotion, and dedication are the real character traits that God looks for in someone who will speak for Him. Moshe inspires in us the sense that greatness in Torah is not connected to talent, achievement, or expertise. That we should aim to follow and represent the Torah, rather than to own or master it.

1 It is a standard midrashic assumption that, whenever the Torah says “zeh,” it refers to something being pointed to. We enact this ritually at the Pesah seder when we point to the matzah and maror and say, “matzah zo” or “maror zeh.”

2 The sheretz is a class of crawling creature which does not map on neatly to any of our modern genus classifications. And unlike mammals, fish, or fowl, there is no kind of sheretz which is kosher, and the sheretz is a particularly potent source of ritual impurity.

3 See Avot deRabbi Natan (Version A) 6:2.

4 See Shemot 18.

5 BeMidbar 11:26, 12:1. I believe that Eldad and Meidad are pseudonyms for Aharon and Miriam. I have not seen this stated explicitly in any earlier source, though there is a tradition (quoted in the Targum of Yonatan ben Uziel) that Eldad and Meidad were Moshe’s half-siblings. This tradition is generally understood to mean that they were Moshe’s half-siblings, in addition to Aharon and Miriam. I suggest that the proper way to interpret this tradition is that Aharon and Miriam were Eldad and Meidad, i.e. that they themselves were only half-siblings of Moshe. This explains the strange phrase used to describe Eldad and Meidad in v. 26, וְהֵמָּה בַּכְּתֻבִים and they are in the writings, which seems to be a parenthetical note to look for more information about these two characters written elsewhere. It also accounts for the way that Miriam is introduced in Shemot 15:20-21 as Aharon’s sister, and not as the sister of both Moshe and Aharon.

6 BeMidbar 12:3.

7 See BeMidbar 12:1-9.

8 Rashi on VaYikra 1:1, quoting the Sifra there.

9 See Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4:4-5.