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Accessing the Inner Female

At dramatic moments, Moses accesses his inner female.

In Numbers, which retells the story of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, the rabble gets fired up about the culinary deprivation of having nothing to eat but manna. “O that we had meat to eat!” they cry to Moses in Numbers 11:4-5. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt… the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Moses, in turn, lashes out at God, asking why he has to carry the heavy burden of these ingrates. In his frustration and rage, he sees himself as a much put-upon woman — a victim, even, of everyone’s unrealistic expectations. “Did I conceive all this people?” he demands of God. “Did I bring them forth [for You] to say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the sucking child’…? Where am I to get meat?” [Numbers 12-13] Conventionally, God’s response should be: “Sorry, hon. I’ll pick up some steaks tonight on my way home.”

In the tone of his second Farewell Discourse to the Israelites in this week’s Portion, Ekev, Moses again channels his inner woman, not in self-pity but in reassurance. Now the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, confronting their final terrible enemies before their accession to their destined home. But instead of urging the Israelites to “Go for it! Kill! Conquer!” Moses meanders through an empathic, heartwarming exhortation that calls upon his people to remember their best and deepest selves.

He praises them: Because you hearken to God’s ordinances, Moses tells his people, and keep His covenant, “He will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee; He will also bless the fruit of thy body and the fruit of thy land, thy corn and thy wine and thine oil…” (Deuteronomy 7: 12-13).

He reminds them of their history, of how they faced trials in the desert meant to test their hearts: “Thou shalt remember all the ways which the Lord thy God hath led thee these 40 years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart” (Deuteronomy 8:2). But with God’s help and despite their own rebelliousness, they always came through. They had enough to eat and drink, and even their “raiment waxed not old” (Deuteronomy 8:4).

His talk is often of their hearts. Repeatedly Moses asks the people to look into their hearts, to find it within themselves to trust God and remember their destiny. They should delve into their hearts and find courage, he says. “If thou shalt say in thy heart: ‘These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?’ thou shalt not be afraid” (Deuteronomy 7:17-18) because God has always been at their side. “The Lord thy God is in the midst of thee” (Deuteronomy 7:21). Their nomadic desert life will not be unrewarded: “For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks, of water, of fountains and depths… of wheat and barley and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey…”(Deuteronomy 8:7-8). His tone is intimate, reassuring, nurturing, exactly that of a mother or wet-nurse carrying a sucking child.

But with all that bounty, their hearts should not become filled with pride. The Israelites should not forget that these gifts are from God, lest “thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:14). They should “serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

In the speech’s most compelling metaphor, indeed a mixed one, Moses urges the Israelites to circumcise their hearts, to rid themselves of the hardened carapace of their stubbornness. “Circumcise… the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked” (Deuteronomy 10:16), he urges them, for God “hath made thee as the stars of heaven…” (Deuteronomy 10:22). In circumcising their hearts they will become open, vulnerable, conscious of divine bounty and their own frailty and need. Above all, they will be grateful — almost painfully grateful — and always mindful of God’s protective and compelling presence. Moses makes the point here that the hearts in need of circumcision are those of his own peers in the desert. “I speak not with your children that have not known,” he says, but to those of his own generation whose “eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord which He did” (Deuteronomy 11: 2 and 7). His speech is direct and personal, a heart to heart.

It’s a girly-man speech (thank you, Governor Schwarzenegger), a peaceable and introspective one, and all the more effective for that.

Evan Zimroth is a professor of English and Jewish studies at Queens College, CUNY. She is the author of four books, including “Gangsters” (Crown Publishers, 1996), which won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and she is working on another novel.

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