Chulin 139: Where is Moshe?

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“Where is Moshe [mentioned] in the Torah?” It is hard to imagine a more—let's be gentle here—superfluous question. A better question would be where isn’t Moshe mentioned in the Torah. Who knows if without Moshe there would even be a Torah. Perhaps the only question that can match it in incomprehensibility is asking where Haman, Esther and Mordechai are mentioned in the Torah. Considering they lived some 1,000 years after the conclusion of the Torah that would be some feat. Yet as may have realized by now these are the exact questions the Gemara (Chulin 139b) does in fact ask.

The Gemara, unfazed by the question, promptly answers that Moshe is in fact “mentioned” at the end of parshat Breisheet. G-d, seeing the descent of man, contemplates destroying the world. “The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, בְּשַׁגָּ֖ם beshegam, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years” (Breisheet 6:3). While the name Moshe does not directly appear, Rashi notes that the word beshegam, has the same numerical value of the Moshe. The two words share the letters mem and shin and in place of the heh in Moshe, we have a bet and a gimmel in beshegam both of which have the numerical value of five.

The more obvious link between the verse and Moshe would seem to be mention that the lifespan of man will now be “only” 120 years, one that interestingly, is the actual lifespan of only one biblical figure, namely Moshe.

A closer look both at the verse itself and its context may help to shed some light on this rather strange question and even stranger answer.

The verse teaches that beshegam, that since "he too" is flesh he (man) will live but 120 years. While that may not seem such an extraordinary remark, when made in reference to Moshe and placed in the historical context of other religions it is quite extraordinary. Founders of religions are generally portrayed as super human, even divine figures who never truly die. The mummification of the Pharaohs of Egypt was a way for them to gain immortality and Greek mythology (to name two cultures that exerted an enormous influence on Judaism) is replete with humans turning into gods. And that is before we even discuss Christianity.

In contrast, the Torah wants us to know that even before Moshe was born, and even before we actually know his name, he too was fully human. Not only would he die like every other human being, but he, like every other human, would make mistakes.

While our Gemara interprets the 120 years of this verse as a reference to Moshe’s lifespan, the pshat of the pasuk refers to the years until the flood. G-d was disappointed and angry at the descent of man and gave them 120 years to mend their ways[1]. G-d was sorry He had created man[2] and was willing to act on that regret if change did not happen. Thankfully, and sounding almost as if offering comfort to G-d, the Torah then notes that “Noach found favour in the eyes of G-d” (Breisheet 6:8).

That Moshe is first alluded to in the context of Noach is most telling. Noach was the saviour and redeemer of the world at large, a role played by Moshe vis-a-vis the Jewish people. While a Jew must observe 613 mitzvot a ben-Noach, descendant of Noach, who keeps but the seven basic mitzvoth of moral behaviour, also merits the World to Come.

Commentaries have noted parallels of these two greats. Both were saved by floating in a “boat” on water, Moshe even being named Moshe upon being drawn from the water; the 40 days of the flood which brought about a new world finds its parallel in the 40 days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai, transforming the world once again.

After bringing proof texts for the early mention of Moshe the Gemara does the same regarding Haman, Esther and Mordechai. One might wonder the Gemara specifically mentions these four and none other.

The Mahrasha in a fascinating comment notes that what unites Moshe, Haman, Mordechai and Esther is that these were their “secular names”. Moshe was named by an Egyptian princess who spoke nary a word of Hebrew. His true name was Avigdor, the father who protects us[3].

Esther’s “Hebrew” name was Hadassah, with Esther and Mordechai being names of Persian origin named for foreign gods. Echoing the Ibn Ezra the Maharsha claims that the Persian names our protagonists are referred to, reflect the fact that the Megillah was written by Persians and it is for this reason that the name of G-d is not mentioned in the Megillah.

Even Haman, our Sages claim had a Hebrew name, that of Memuchan, who is mentioned in the first chapter of the Megillah. The Maharsha posits that despite their names being of foreign origin, Moshe, Esther Mordechai and Haman are names that are of Biblical importance and hence eternal meaning. So much so that only regarding Esther does the text specifically mention her “Jewish” name and it does so  only once[4]. (See here for an analysis of Haman’s name as referenced in sefer Breisheet.) Sometimes it is the names given to us by others that best reflect our essence.

Beyond the origins of their names there seems to be a thematic link between Moshe and the Megillah. Moshe Rabbeinu was tasked with redeeming the Jewish people from Egypt, bringing them to Sinai and leading them into the land of Israel. While Moshe himself would not complete the journey, the Torah is a blueprint for life in the land of Israel and it is only there that it can be fully implemented. The entirety of sefer Devarim is devoted to Moshe preparing the Jewish people for life in the land of Israel.

As a people we have had, for better or worse, close to 2,000 years of experience living in exile. But for the Jews exiled in 586 BCE living in exile was a huge unknown and challenge. With no Temple, and no national institutions it was not clear to all that Judaism would survive. Even as early as the 6th century BCE history had shown that great empires can come and go. Would the Jewish people be any different?

Megillat Esther answers that question with a resounding yes. This last of Biblical books (and holidays) is the model for life in the exile, where G-d’s presence is no longer manifest. With prophecy no longer—prophecy being a special gift meant only for the land of Israel[5]—the people themselves would have to figure out the proper course of action in these unchartered waters. Our Sages, noting that the last verse of the Megillah states that Mordechai was liked by the "majority" of the people, posit that even many members of the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from Mordechai.

And it is this idea that is reflected in Esther’s name. “Where is Esther [mentioned] in the Torah?” Using much more than a play on words the Gemara quotes the verse "V’Ancohi haster, asteer panai, I will hide my face”(Devarim 31:17). With G-d hidden man must rise to the forefront.

Names play a significant role in Biblical literature, oftentimes reflecting the essence of a person. Whether of indigenous or foreign origin we are mandated to ensure that we live up to our name, imbuing it with Biblical significance.  

 

[1] Contrast this to the people of Ninveh who were given only 40 days to repent. Perhaps it was the lack of any urgency to do so that ensured they would not. The more time you give for something to get done the less likely people will feel a need to do so.


[2] This is not the place to discuss the theological issues these verses raise regarding the notion of G-d complete knowledge of future events. Please G-d, we will have an opportunity to discuss this at some other time. But suffice it to say that we are not the first to raise this question and the range of answers to this question is wider than one might think.


[3] A geder means a fence and Avigdor may also mean the one who sets boundaries, a reference to the laws of the Torah. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3) claims that Moshe is only one of ten names that he had. The fact that in the Torah itself he is exclusively referred to by his “Egyptian name” is fascinating. One lesson we might derive is that regardless of one’s background one can become a great leader of the Jewish people.


[4] This sheds new light on the Midrashim that attribute the redemption of the Jews from Egypt to the fact that they did not change their names. Like many a Midrash it most likely is not to be taken literally.


[5] This helps explain why Yonah tried to escape Israel by boat. He thought that if he could leave the land of Israel, G-d could no longer demand he prophesize.