Of Man’s First Disobedience

In loving memory of my mother, Judith Kaufman Hurwich a”h

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. פרקי אבות 2:21

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to abandon it.

This essay has a backstory. It begins with a young woman I do not know but have wanted to thank for twenty years. She paid a shiva call and gave me and my family a priceless gift – a recording of my mother doing what she did best: teaching. What follows is a synthesis of hearts and minds – excerpts from the last class my mother taught at Matan with my literary spin. It’s a conversation, as it were, which, given the opportunity, we would have likely had.

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heav’ns and earth
Rose out of chaos:     Paradise Lost, Bk I:6-10

The bardic voice in John Milton’s Paradise Lost is unequivocally guided, albeit subtly, by the Hebraic prophet (“that shepherd”), who first transcribed this narrative under God’s direction. This Moses, to whom Milton looks for the truth, is the Moses he would have encountered in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic commentary; the Moses, in whom the poet would have found as many questions as he did answers; the Moses, that is, who emerges alone, in his most human, most vulnerable state, in Deuteronomy 3.

23 And I besought the LORD at that time, saying: 24 ‘O Lord GOD, Thou hast begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness, and Thy strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Thy works, and according to Thy mighty acts? 25 Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.’

By means of direct reference, allusion and linguistic parallelism, this week’s Torah portion recasts God’s covenant and the Ten Commandments in a sweeping account of the principal events in Moses’ epic journey with the Israelites from Egypt to the plains of Moab. Its paramount significance, however, is to be found in these first three verses – and, arguably, in the first word: Va’etkhanan.

And I besought: Moses stood before God, as he had so many times before, and uttered a supplication – yet, not for the Children of Israel, it would appear, but for himself. This is our first and only glimpse of a profoundly intimate moment between the man and the God he has faithfully served for forty years. For a brief moment, he is neither leader nor prophet, neither mediator nor lawgiver. He is, as the rabbis observe, “the lonely man,” for whom no one pleads – or ever has – and must, therefore, do so himself.

Va’etkhanan. For the first time since God called to the shepherd from the burning bush at Horeb, Moses asks for an act of grace. Grace (חֵן), Rashi explains, is a free gift (matnat khinam), requested or received without merit. It follows, then, that t’khinah (supplication), for Rashi, is the prayer of the righteous – of one, who may legitimately rely on the merit of his good deeds but does not.

Like Moses before him, Milton – his sight failing into “ever-during dark” – utters an invocation to see that which has been denied him by the same Creator. And each deems his request consequential to future generations.

Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present…: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.   PL, Bk I:19-26

Though espoused by Christian typology as a demonstration of divine grace, the rabbinic interpretations of Moses’ supplication and of the vision God grants him do not elude Milton. Paradise Lost is, if fact, concerned with more than one man’s first disobedience, because Moses, who is more righteous than most, is as fallible as all. And it is the man, not the myth, with whom the poet identifies. So, even as his poem asserts God’s goodness, Milton recognizes that God’s ways need a defense.

The Father is as much a part of the moral dilemma in Paradise Lost as He is in Va’etkhanan. Recalling Moses’ struggle to comprehend that which seems arbitrary in God’s language and actions, Milton must similarly negotiate the demand for absolute obedience and submission, on the one hand, and the drive to interrogate and challenge religious doctrine, on the other.

Nevertheless, while Milton’s portrayal of the vision granted to Adam in Books XI and XII draws heavily on Rashi’s interpretation of Moses atop Mount Nebo, literary critics often misapprehend the biblical text. The prophet’s final moments cannot be isolated from the first verses of Va’etkhanan; to do so is to avoid those questions of divine justice, with which exegetes have wrestled for 1000 years. But, insofar as the epic purposes to “assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men” through His manifestation of grace, Milton’s Moses, “being but the Minister of Law,” is properly consigned to the typological role of messenger.

From the morphology of the word va’etkhanan in biblical Hebrew, we can infer both the past and future tenses. Ambiguities of this sort occur throughout the Bible, and they are always deliberate. The language of prophecy is thus intended to articulate the past in the future tense, and, by drawing on these patterns from Scripture, prophetic poetry does the same. Its end is not to foretell but to forewarn.

Now the LORD was angered with me for your sakes, and swore that I should not go over the Jordan, and that I should not go into that good land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance; …Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which He made with you… For the LORD thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Deut. 4:21-24

In view of his repeated exhortations, Moses’ supplication may not have been only for himself after all. Ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century grammarian and commentator, maintains that, in giving the people his last testament, Moses emphasizes that everything he has done has been for them – for their sake. Still the prophet, the leader, and the teacher by example, he shares this painful moment with the Israelites so that they will earn the right to enter the Promised Land, even as he cannot. Accordingly, Ibn Ezra concludes, Moses asks to “go over… and see the good land” so that he might make it beloved to the people. For, he believes that, if they love the land, they will love God and observe His many statutes and ordinances so as not to be exiled from it.

Questions of obedience and faith, of causes and consequences, inform both narratives. Just as Moses, as he appears in Va’etkhanan, is concerned about the readiness of his people to enter the Promised Land, so, too, is the poet-prophet of Paradise Lost. Hence, granting that the fulfillment of a prophecy is its ability to avert future hardship and misery, one may argue that both Moses and Milton ultimately make a persuasive case for God’s Eternal Providence in the universe.

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