Moses: A Betwixt and Between Leader
In the midst of parashat Pinchas, Moses is forced to confront his limitations both in space and time (Numbers 27:12-23). He is reminded again of his sin in striking the rock and the ultimate punishment of being stripped of the mantle of leadership and of life itself right at the threshold of entering the Land of Israel.
Much ink has been spilled on defining the nature of Moses’ sin. Classical commentaries have suggested that it was hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, calling the Israelites rebels, and other possibilities. Some academic commentators see the account as an attempt to harmonize competing traditions or as a source which was inadvertently cut short and partially lost. Commentators also debate the fairness of the punishment, and whether or not it truly fits the crime. The question posed here, however, is of a different nature: If Moses had not struck the rock, would he have then been the right person to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land?
Up to this moment, Moses has been leading the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness. On its face, this is a strange concept. What does it mean to lead people as they are wandering? What is the significance of these wanderings? To help answer such questions, it may be helpful to draw upon the anthropological literature, in particular the works of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.
Van Gennep and Turner
In 1909, van Gennep published a book that later appeared in English as Rites of Passage. In it, he suggested that there was a common pattern to all cultural rites of passage associated with birth, puberty, marriage, death, and so forth. He labeled the first stage as “separation,” the second as “transition,” and the third as “reincorporation.”
In the first phase the individual withdraws from his previous identity and begins to prepare for his new one. In the second phase, the individual hovers in a liminal (in-between) state between two fixed statuses—the one he or she has left and the one he or she is about to join. By definition, this is a state of ambiguity and tension, demanding expert supervision. In the third phase, the individual is brought back into society having achieved a new identity. This phase is usually accompanied by much rejoicing and celebration.
Six decades later, Turner published a collection of lectures called The Ritual Process (1969). In these lectures, he applied van Gennep’s paradigm for rites of passages among individuals to larger social entities, arguing that the same stages could be applied to whole communities as they move from one status to another.
Turner was particularly intrigued by the middle phase and on expanding on the concept of liminality, which he referred to as “betwixt and between.” He used the Latin noun communitas for the collective group who experience liminality together and are elevated by the intense feelings of solidarity, equality, and camaraderie that are engendered.
The Desert Experience: An Anthropological Perspective
From an anthropological perspective, therefore, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, as described in the Torah, can be interpreted as the liminal phase of the Israelites transitioning from an oppressed group of slaves to an independent and sovereign nation. The Israelites have left behind their previous status as slaves in Egypt.
Absent is the structure of living in a socially and politically complex society. There is no pharaoh to rule over them, no taskmasters, no wealthy people, no buildings, no bricks, no streets, no fields of wheat and barley, no gardens, no rivers, no temples, no monuments, and no merchants. In short, there is very little of the content and rhythm of their past lives.
Similarly, life in the wilderness does not look anything like it will once they reach the Land of Israel where there will be people to conquer and a nation to build. When the Israelites eventually settle the land, they will be busy with the construction of new infrastructure. They will erect pillared houses of mud-brick, terrace the hillsides for orchards and vineyards, raise grains in the valleys, store their harvests in large ceramic vessels and silos, create cisterns to collect water, build altars, and be ruled informally by shoftim (judges). They will enjoy the structure and stability of an agro-pastoral lifestyle. Their life will be the opposite of wandering in the wilderness, sustained by the manna.
Yet, anyone who has experienced rites of passage, whether a brit (circumcision) or a bar mitzvah or wedding or a shiva (house of mourning), knows that the liminal phase can be endured for only so long before a yearning for a return to normal life and its quotidian routines begins to surface. Imagine forty years of betwixt and between!
Moses as the Steward of Israel’s Liminal Phase
In this context, Moses’ stewardship, as presented in the Torah, is even more impressive. He was dealing with a people in transition, undergoing the emotional ups and downs associated with change, all in the context of anti-structure. He knew that he could not allow the Israelites to resume normal life until they had completely undergone the psychological, social, and religious rewiring that was necessary for them to become the nation of Israel.
God must have known long ago that Moses’ end would necessarily come once the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land. The commentators are bothered by Moses’ fate and Moses himself, at least in Deuteronomy (3:23-25), begs to be allowed to enter, but God is adamant. Moses’ life from the very beginning was as a liminal figure only, betwixt and between, first as a baby in a basket, then as a Hebrew in Pharaoh’s house, and subsequently as a fugitive in Midian. It is impossible to imagine him moving from what Van Gennep called the “transition” phase to the “reincorporation.” (Compare, for example, the difficulties Winston Churchill had transitioning from a war time to a peace-time leader.)
Moses’ calling was to supervise a prolonged and nearly impossible transitional period, and now it was time for others to lead the reincorporation. It would have been too confusing for the Israelites to have Moses, the wilderness leader, in the Land of Israel. Israel might then revert to “wilderness” behaviors and practices, not integrating into their new home, with its new demands.
Thus, through his sin at Mei Meribah—whatever that sin may have been—Moses seals his own fate as a liminal figure. However, rather than being a surprise ending, his death in the wilderness was the foregone conclusion to his story. Just as Moses did not experience slavery in Egypt, he will not experience freedom in the Promised Land.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 25, 2013
March 11, 2020
Dr. Jill (Citron) Katz is clinical assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology at Yeshiva University. She received her A.B. from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Katz excavates at Tell es-Safi/Gath where she serves as an area supervisor. Her book, The Archaeology of Cult in Middle Bronze Age Canaan: The Sacred Area at Tel Haror, Israel was published by Gorgias Press in 2009.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series