did Moshe Rabbeinu Look Like?
is a legend concerning Moshe that is most intriguing, and it seems that
those who subscribe to it and those who don’t, at least in the past, were
divided, more-or-less, along “party lines;” such that the Chassidic
world on the whole subscribed to it and the non-Chassidic world found it
According to the legend, a king in the ancient world heard about the exploits of the great leader of the People of Israel. Curious to learn more about the man, he commissioned a famous portrait painter in his country to make a portrait of the great Jewish leader.
painter traveled with a small retinue of armed guards to protect him from
the dangers of the Wilderness. They
realized they were approaching the encampment of the Jews when they saw the
towering Pillar of Cloud in the distance.
When the painter arrived at the camp, he explained his mission to the
Elders. They conferred with
Moshe, who agreed to have his portrait painted, provided that it would not
interfere with his daily activities. The
artist agreed to the condition, began his work, and in a number of weeks,
finished the project. Before he
left for home, he thanked Moshe, and obtained his approval of the work.
the artist returned and showed the portrait of Moshe to the king, his royal
patron reacted with shock and dismay. This
was because the portrait showed the face of a man that was extremely cruel,
and made Moshe look like a combination of a bandit and a murderer.
After contemplating the matter for several hours, he summoned the
painter to appear before him, and accused him of rebellion against the
crown, and threatened him with execution.
But the king’s advisors intervened and said that out of fairness to
the artist, the king should verify personally the accuracy of the portrait.
king agreed to make the journey, and set out with a large retinue, towards
the Jewish encampment. When the
king’s party arrived, they were greeted with courtesy and hospitality by
the Elders, and ushered into the presence of Moshe.
And the shock of the king was repeated with greater intensity, as
before him now was the man reputed to be the most noble of men, and yet, as
the artist’s portrait had captured with great accuracy, this man had the
look of a cutthroat murderer! The
king summoned his courage and asked Moshe to explain the great gap between
his behavior and his appearance.
answered, “It is true. My
features are those of a wicked person.
And my natural tendency was to be that bad, or worse.
But I struggled to overcome my innate characteristics, and was
successful in changing my nature.”
This legend, on first hearing, goes very much against the grain. I hope the reason for this is only minimally the Hollywood-image of the actor Charleton Heston, who portrayed Moshe in “The Ten Commandments,” but much more powerfully reinforced by the verse in Shemot 2:2 that describes Moshe, from the day of his birth, as giving the impression “that he was good.”
subscribing to this legend is one of the “litmus tests” that generally
could distinguish between a Chassid and a non-Chassid, was stated by a
leading, contemporary Chassidic personality.
Why should this be so?
give an “armchair” sociological interpretation, that may or may not have
any validity, I would suggest that the Movement of Chassidut, originated in
1736 by the Baal Shem Tov, followed soon after the collapse of the Shabbetai
Tzvi Messianic Movement. That
debacle came to a calamitous end when its leader converted to Islam.
Millions of Jews the world over had been believers, and their hopes
had been dashed. Shabbetai Tzvi
had promised the Jews a way out of the poverty and disgrace of the Exile,
but his own disgraceful end left the Jewish People with a national case of
this void of despair, stepped the Baal
Shem Tov, who lifted Jewish spirits by showing that there were other
pathways than pure intellect, that led to HaShem.
Not only Torah scholarship was worthy in G-d’s eyes, but joy,
prayer and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) were also valid avenues.
The typical Jew could transform himself by becoming associated with a
leader who was righteous and scholarly, a charismatic figure who was
willing to assume the mantle of “Rebbe.”
That individual would lift and inspire his followers.
Thus, the idea of “transformation” was a key to the rapidly
spreading acceptance of this new Movement among the Jewish masses, whose
adherents claimed legitimacy for its ideas in the roots of Judaism.
idea that individual Jews are obligated to elevate themselves continually,
the recognition that mass segments of the Jewish People had succeeded in an
unprecedented self-elevation and transformation as a community, allowed
Chassidim to accept this legend of transformation, concerning the greatest
I believe that today we are witnessing, to a small but measurable degree, the unification of the Chassidic and the non-Chassidic worlds, as both intellect and emotion are increasingly seen as legitimate pathways to HaShem.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel