Stammering Toward The Promised Land


In “Moses: A Human Life,” Aviva Zornberg offers fresh insight into a familiar story, while reconciling us to our deepening awareness that so much remains unknown.

Zornberg never argues for or against the historical veracity of her character. Rather, she constructs an interpretive biography that examines Moses from many points of view and illuminates his lasting legacy for literature, religion and world culture. Nor is she daunted by the limitation of her source material to one main text, the Bible. Zornberg overcomes constraints with her signature embroidery of Midrash, Talmud, chasidic lore, psychoanalysis and secular literature. Sometimes taken together and at other times considered separately, these references form a complex overlay on the source text. Input from thinkers and writers as diverse as D.W. Winnecott, Emanuel Levinas and George Eliot enrich her reflections on Moses, the man and his mission.

This book is a good introduction to readers not yet familiar with Zornberg’s approach to biblical narrative. Those well-versed in Zornberg’s earlier commentaries will re-encounter some familiar motifs: the unthought known, the exile of speech, the murmuring deep or underground stream of the biblical unconscious reappear. Many of the themes of her last book, “Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers,” are re-examined from the perspective of Moses as reluctant leader: he who stutters and fails while carrying a rebellious people across the desert, a man who arguably completes his mission but must leave his deepest desire unassuaged.

Here, as in “Bewilderments,” it is words and speech (in Hebrew, “dibbur”) that attempt to express “the dynamic of longing,” that which animates the human spirit and leads us “to choose life over death.” Moses is a man delegated by God for a great mission yet from his earliest years, he is afflicted with a speech impediment. Zornberg quotes the French philosopher Levinas, “The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric without a stammer that it has as its chief prophet a man slow of speech and of tongue.” One of Zornberg’s messages, conveyed through the pathos of Moses’ human life, is that Jewish core values cannot come into being without the cracked or incomplete; it is in imperfection that we find the seeds of spiritual growth.

Zornberg, who lives in Jerusalem and is a devoutly Orthodox Jew, is both reverential and iconoclastic in her approach to Moses’ inner life. She provides a thoughtful reading of Moses’ response to the Israelite’s orgiastic worship of the Golden Calf. Moses prays so fervently for Divine forgiveness of the erring people because, in this moment of entreaty, he is shaken to his core by an image of his own (yet-unborn) grandson serving a graven image. Thus, “he comes to a realization about himself: that the fire of idolatry burns in his own bones.” This flash of psychoanalytic insight comes to Zornberg through the Talmud as interpreted through a more modern commentary, Meshech Chochma.

In her most accessible chapter, “Moses in the Family,” Zornberg traces Moses’ rivalry with his older brother Aaron and his more complex relationship with Miriam, his older sister. Moses must navigate God’s assignment with sensitivity for his older brother’s compromised prestige. Then he must forge harmony with Miriam, the sister who enabled his birth and ensured his survival in genocidal times. What to do when “her little brother grows bigger and eclipses her. Her prophecy ceases; his begins and flourishes.” The Moses-Miriam relationship remains fierce, fraught and to many modern sensibilities, unfair. In Zornberg’s view, it is in his family dynamic, beginning in the trauma of his abandonment by his birth mother, that Moses finds his formative emotional truths. It is these wounds, lacunae and tensions that serve as both obstacle and pathway to his greatness.

“Moses: A Human Life” culminates in the moment of utter defeat when Moses realizes he will not enter The Holy Land. This is, above all, a book about the aspirations and pitfalls of leadership, appearing at a time when we too are witness to the startling rise and fall of political figures on the national stage. (Zornberg’s emphasis on the procreative and destructive power of speech seems particularly important in the current climate.) Her lingering on Moses’ profound disappointment at his failure to touch his people deeply enough for them to rally to his cause is also eerily timely.

There is in this book a shade of unprecedented intimacy between the author and her readers. Zornberg writes of a workshop when she portrayed Moses in the thwarted supplicant scene. Putting her “I into the role of self as Moses,” Zornberg began to weep, wondering at the stirring of “such unsuspected depths of pain.” This book reads as a disciplined processing of that pain; it gives rise to a journey that is as personal as it is political. In a moment of self-seeing, Moses’ and Zornberg’s grief mirrors — and makes sacred — our own.

Zornberg evokes human truths, striking different chords in each individual. In her encounter with Moses, she confesses to “a harrowing transpersonal experience.” Like her many faithful readers, she “undergoes something that comes from the outside but evokes a profound inwardness.” We may not reach the Promised Land, but we can fold our hearts a little deeper into our own defeat. In her retelling and refracting of the life of Moses, she has brought us closer to Moses, to herself and to the hidden truths about ourselves.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Threads).