In his 2003 Commentary on the Torah, Professor Richard Elliott Friedman reflects on the concluding verses of the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. He claims that the Book of Numbers develops what was begun in Exodus in the matter of the man Moses himself (p. 547). What becomes evident is the evolution of Moses’ personality, particularly its complex and conflicting sides. In the Book of Exodus, Moses often speaks to God in private conversation. By the end of the Book of Numbers those conversations are fewer, replaced by more portrayals of his interaction with the people to whom he is reluctantly bound.
Moses the man lives in tension: his humility is in conflict with his anger, his love for his fellow human beings stands in conflict with his disappointment with his people. On the one hand Moses remains the closest to God that any human beings could ever be. Yet at the same time, he reveals himself to be the most emphatically human, the most affected by his personal weaknesses. In assessing the results of these tensions, Friedman concludes that Moses was “the most textured personality in the Hebrew Bible.”
That Moses is eternally recalled as “our master” should not be surprising. In one sense Moses was the mediator of God’s Torah to the people Israel. Hence, bearing the title “master” with reference to his special knowledge of the Torah he recorded and taught is apposite. But Moses was more than the paradigmatic teacher/mentor. Moses is the exemplar of what it means to be human: subject to tensions and conflicts, sometimes overcoming weaknesses and sometimes surrendering to them or simply overcome by them.
Moses struggled to “find himself” despite his closeness to God or, perhaps, because of it. Moses’ life was characterized by unparalleled triumphs and by profound failures. He was both the defender of Israel and its principal accuser. He alone could heroically ascend the heights of Sinai but also pathetically reduce himself to a blubbering mendicant pleading for another chance. He could lead others to the Promised Land but could not enter there himself. Like so many who followed after him his ambitions and hopes go unfulfilled.
Thus Moses is not some grand and unmatchable demigod. He is little different than every one of us. Accordingly, we hold him dear.