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Moses Lives On

Moses Lives On


At an earlier time in my life, before becoming an observant Jew, I read a remarkable French novel called Les Miserables, a masterful and hugely inspiring story of repentance.

Written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, and regarded by many as one of the great works of Western literature, Les Miserables traces the life of Jean Valjean, who as a young man is apprehended while stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and is subsequently imprisoned in a brutally repressive jail for some 19 years.

I was profoundly affected by this book.

Over the period of his captivity, Valjean is transformed from a gentle, compassionate individual into a brooding, malevolent criminal who burns inside with a deep hatred for a society and a criminal-justice system that have caused him so much hardship and misfortune. Emerging from prison a very dangerous individual, a man with a blackened reputation that foreshadows a life of antisocial activity, Valjean encounters an enlightened spirit, who through an act of great self-sacrifice and love helps Valjean rekindle his essential spark of decency, setting him on a new humanitarian path to rectify the misery and suffering of the unfortunate victims of French provincial society.

I was profoundly affected by this book. For some reason unknown to me at the time, I identified strongly with the character of Jean Valjean, and his dramatic transformation sparked something of a spiritual awakening within me. As I read on, my spirits soared with every new selfless deed, with every act of self-sacrifice and with every random expression of kindness Valjean bestowed upon the people in his world. However, those of you who are familiar with the story will recall that, true to its name, the book concludes in a most miserable fashion. Profoundly ashamed of his earlier misdeeds, Valjean elects to separate himself from his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her husband, Marius, lest they be contaminated somehow by the horrors of his criminal past. Filled with remorse, he lives his last few years in isolation and ignominy, and in so doing chooses to deny the passage to his children of his rich spiritual legacy. For Valjean, death is indeed final. Cold, empty, the concluding chapter of an at times glorious life, now utterly forgotten.

I identified strongly with the character of Jean Valjean, and his dramatic transformation sparked something of a spiritual awakening within me.

This astonishingly cold and miserable end for Valjean left me with the unresolved questions: Is repentance (teshuvah) a sustainable phenomenon? How can one maintain one’s commitment to the fulfillment of a higher purpose in the face of smothering mundanity? And if yes, can my own experience of personal transformation be transmitted to others?

Jewish people will soon be celebrating the festival of Purim. The story of Esther, which chronicles the Purim drama, is well known to most of us. The weak-minded king of Persia, under the influence of the evil Haman, issues a kingdom-wide decree that on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar in the year that follows, all the people of his kingdom have unbridled license to kill Jews, men, women and children. Through this decree, Haman hoped that the entire Jewish people would be wiped out in a single day. Haman chose this particular day by casting a lot, and he was overjoyed when the lot fell out in Adar, because he knew that this was the month in which the Jews’ great leader, Moses, had passed away. This, reasoned Haman, was an excellent sign that his plan would be successful. Unbeknownst to Haman, however, Moses was born on the same day that he died, the 7th day of Adar, and according to our sages, “the act of his birth canceled out the act of his death.”

Through this decree, Haman hoped that the entire Jewish people would be wiped out in a single day.

How can we understand this aphorism of the sages?

Perhaps the answer lies in recognizing that Moses’ life can be understood in two dimensions. First, there was Moses the man, who traversed our material plane. The individual, born into slavery, who was miraculously saved by the daughter of Pharaoh, and who was raised in the home of the same tyrant who was hell-bent on exploiting and crushing Moses’ people. The individual who escaped from Egypt, married, had children, and ultimately returned to lead his people to freedom. The individual who then tended to the needs of the children of Israel for 40 tumultuous years, and who was ultimately denied passage into the land of Israel, confined to an unknown burial place on the eastern side of the Jordan River. This Moses, the individual, lived for 120 years—great and glorious years though they were—and then he died and disappeared, seemingly forever.

Within the same being, entwined with this human dimension, however, there is Moses, the servant of G‑d. When we encounter this facet of Moses, we no longer see an individual, but rather G‑d’s consummate representative on earth. In this dimension, Moses the individual, is totally nullified to his G‑dly mission, and in this capacity he executes what was previously thought to be impossible and unthinkable. He breaks the seemingly inexorable boundary between the spiritual and physical realms, and in the unparalleled revelation at Sinai he literally escorts the infinite divine presence into the confined limitations of time and space. As the quintessential servant of G‑d, Moses is privileged to be the purveyor to all of humanity of G‑d’s blueprint for the world, Torah, a wisdom which is at once clothed in the language and experiences of this finite physical world and concomitantly embodies an existential truth which is limitless and eternal.

Moses is privileged to be the purveyor to all of humanity . . .

Here lies the answer to the question that I was wrestling with, and the reason why Les Miserables was merely a stepping stone to an incomparably higher truth.

Valjean, the mythical hero, lived life solely as a vulnerable human, who embraced personal transformation with nothing more than well-intentioned aspirations and personal experience. His life reflected the human, individual dimension only, and while his repentance was poignant, his legacy was ultimately non-transferable. Remorse alone is not a sustainable spiritual compass, and his death ultimately extinguished his birth.

Moses, by way of distinction—the great and very real hero of the Scriptures—was in the final analysis, a conduit for a state of existence which transcends death. His mission outlives his life, and he thereby lives on with it: the clear and pure intermediary whose job is to bring G‑d and the Jewish people into communion, forever. And the fact that over three thousand years later, we continue to dedicate ourselves to the timeless principles which Moses conveyed, underscores the ultimate truth of Moses’ continuing existence.

His death was extinguished by his birth!

Eliezer Kornhauser lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and eight children. He is a businessman whose activities include an organization that presents a contemporary and ethical framework for managing interpersonal relationships.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma June 5, 2012

Moses Lives Now I know it's significant I just got this return commentary. I know it's significant for two reasons, the comment directly above and also the significance of the title of this piece and because it's TODAY. We have NOW, and we can all make a difference in how we do business around the world.

There is a story that is emergent that has everything to do with Moses. Could it be, all stories do wind back to central stories in our lives, as in our Exodus Story, as in The Book of JOB, as in Rebecca at the Well, as in Cain and Abel, as in, The Book of Ruth.

Maybe there are only several BASIC stories, and we relive them, in endless iterations in our own lives.

As Cain is to Able, make is CANE as in sugar, and do it, ably and well. That's the JEW WISH for the world, for us all.

And there is word in world itself. And also whirrled, as surely, the earth moves, on its axis. The true axis of truth IS beauty of being.

Make of your life a masterpiece, and together we make of life, a master peace. Reply

John W Boulder, CO June 5, 2012

Jean Valjean's parallel Moses' sacrifice Jean Valjean's sacrifice parallels Moses' sacrifice and transformation on a small scale. Moses' sacrifice and spiritual transformation enabled him to rescue the Jewish people with the Torah. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would have perished in obscurity long ago. Without Jean Valjean's sacrifice and spiritual transformation Marius would have perished on the barricade. If he had not rescued Cosette, she may have eventually mirrored the cruelty that she was subjected to by the Thenardiers. If Moses had not rescued the Jews at the time that he did, they would have unable to recover spiritually from the being subjected to the depravity of Egypt. Reply

Bettie Stang Melbourne, Australia March 1, 2012

This is a fantastic article.The author has plainly given his thesis great deal of thought. Reply

Chaim T. S. Monica, CA March 1, 2012

Wow What a powerful way of furthering the understanding of a statement of the Talmud as explained by the Rebbe in Lekutei Sichos volume number 26 the first Sicha.

Thank you Reb Eliezer Reply

Gershon Beck Oak park, MI March 1, 2012

Excellent ! beautiful article to read on this great day of the 7th of Adar. And the living should take to heart, vehachay yeeten el leebo.

I had once heard from my Mashpia from Morristown, Rabbi Fitzi Lipskier (A"H) how we must use what we learned before becoming observant toward serving Hashem. Your thoughts echoed this.

Your words - "And the fact that over three thousand years later, we continue to dedicate ourselves to the timeless principles which Moses conveyed, underscores the ultimate truth of Moses’ continuing existence." very powerful

Thank you. Much success to you down under :). Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 29, 2012

Powerful and Significant Endings I read with great interest your moving account of how you pondered meaning in Les Miserables, as it's a story that deeply affected you. It's a story that affected me too, and it has depth, and within the sorrowing story of a man jailed and how he transformed, from good to bad and back to good, are elements of all of our lives, as we live it. We each hit the rocks and in so doing are transformed, and we are moved to tears, often, by the stories we all share. We're in this together and often feel that misery of others, and ours in coming through. And it doesn't all end happily but if we feel empathy for the hero, we learn and go through that same journey in watching the drama unfold, or reading it

Moses was a super hero, but also a man who had issues, and who had to deal with these and he had a mission that was powerful, spiritual, and fearsome, and he must have had his moments of deep reflection in being thus chosen and beloved. And as you say, the end and the beginning seem circular. Reply

rlee5454 Jacksonville, FL/USA February 29, 2012

Having received undeserved mercy, he (Valjean) passed it on to others, he thus became like Moses, an agent of G-d's redemption to others.
Thank you for a beautiful article. May G-d use you and your articles as a continued blessing! Many thanks. Reply

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