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The Three Moses

When Providence creates men who are destined to lead nations to order and happiness, it seems to impart to these sons of genius a portion of its foreknowledge. The axiom of a great historian* applies itself to three eminent men in Israel, all bearing the name of Moses, who have shone at the head of the sons of Jacob, like the column of fire which guided them in the desert.

*Beugnot, Juifs d'Occident.

Moses, the son of Amram, condemned to death from his very birth, found at the borders of the Nile, and educated by charity, was chosen by the Lord as the instrument of revealing his holy law. Nursed under the shadow of the throne of the Pharaohs, it is he who first inspired his brothers with the first ideas of independence; he broke their fetters, and for forty years he subdued their undisciplined mass; he put on the triple crown of a prophet, a warrior and a legislator, and four thousand years have passed over his grave, without weakening the rays of his immortal glory, as prophet, as warrior, and as legislator.

Moses Ben Maimon (surnamed Maimonides), was born in the year 1139, when the splendor of Jerusalem was nothing but an object of memory, and when Israel, scattered over the surface of the globe, sought in the skies for the polar star which was to rally its proscribed families. It was at Cordova that he first saw the light, under the name of Moussa-Ibn-Maimon, and his first steps in the career of science were there first directed by the Arabian philosopher Averro√ęs.* At twenty-four years of age his great knowledge, his sublime eloquence, and his thoughts, equally new as bold, caused him to be considered as a dangerous man; and not deeming himself any longer safe in his own native land, he fled into Egypt, where he carried on, in order to procure a living, a trade in precious stones; but his immense knowledge could not leave him long in an humble situation; the government of Egypt took him soon as its counselor; then he became physician to the court. It was at that time that he published different works, among others his commentary on the Mishna. Under the regent Saladin, he worked ten years on his notes to the Talmud, which appeared in fourteen volumes, under the title of Yad Hachasaka; this is the most remarkable commentary extant on the immense encyclopedia of the Talmud; wise observation, sound judgment, and a true impartiality do as yet stamp this learned work as one of great value. At length, besides several works on medicine and philosophy, Moses Maimon, whom the Rabbins designate by the name of Rambam, published a philosophical summary, under the title of "The Guide of those who are Gone Astray," (Moreh Nebuchim,) a work of the deepest interest, which is yet at this day the object of admiration to the learned, although his works were exposed to the persecution of the envious and mystifiers of his time; because this twofold plague was never wanting at any period of literature. He lived tranquilly at Cairo, beloved and esteemed as a man, as a scholar, and as a physician; his wealth became the patrimony of the unfortunate, and his leisure moments were devoted to the indigent sick, who flocked incessantly to his house. When he died, which was either in 1206 or 1208, his loss caused universal regret. His corpse, surrounded by a multitude in tears, was carried to Tiberias; the entire people of Israel was in affliction, and the synagogues of Cairo and Alexandria placed the day of his death in the number of days of public mourning.

*This is denied by some authorities, as they place the rise of Averro√ęs long after the glory of his reputed scholar had spread far and wide. ED.

Moses Mendelssohn was born in the year 1720 at Dessau, in the Duchy of Anhalt, in Germany. His father, having but little wealth, could not make any sacrifice for his education. Young Mendelssohn had a taste for study, and when his teacher, David Frankel, removed to Berlin, he followed him thither, and there, in the familiar intercourse with the learned Aaron Gomperts, he acquired the desire and the power of arriving at scientific attainments; but he had to procure his living; and the brilliant talents of Moses Mendelssohn were compelled to submit to the subordinate duties of book-keeping, and afterwards to the labors of an inspector of a silk-factory. Not having the means of paying a teacher or of attending a regular course at the university, he undertook to accomplish his education himself; he saved, by living sparingly, sufficient to buy his first Latin books; and by dint of superhuman efforts, which injured his health, he became one of the most learned men of his time.

Moses Mendelssohn possessed the finest talents of all modern Israelites; and Germany is justly entitled to be honored for counting him among the number of its writers of the first rank. This man, who instructed himself alone, has immortalized himself by an elegant and faithful translation of the Bible,* into the national tongue, and by some works in which science and philosophy lavish their profoundest instruction. This simple clerk acquired for himself friends among all ranks, and admirers among all persuasions. The Israelites, above all, have vowed him a deep gratitude for the admirable lessons which he has left them, and the impulse which he has given to the great work of their emancipation. His contemporaries surrounded him with esteem and admiration; and posterity, while ratifying this judgment, has joined thereto the expression of its thankfulness.

*A slight error, because Mendelssohn did not translate more than the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and the books of the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Ecclesiastes; the other books of the Bible have been rendered into German by different persons since his death, and the elucidation of the sacred writers by the countrymen of Mendelssohn is continued to this day. ED.

These three eminent men are the historical stakes, so to say, which mark in the best manner the passage of the Hebrew people through the vicissitudes of history.

Moses, the son of Amram, announced an only God, who fills the world with his immeasurable power; his moral system is that of all religions established since his time; the chronicle which he wrote has become the thread which guides the historian in the night of antiquity; political science, agriculture, health-laws, the arts, and nearly every kind of useful knowledge, find some precious memorials in the Pentateuch. With what nobleness does he speak to Pharaoh! with what force does he demonstrate to the Israelites the benefits of liberty! with what wisdom does he govern, enlighten, and direct this people which had been rendered torpid through slavery! with what perseverance does he contend during forty years against rebellion, famine, and war!

Moses, the son of Maimon, gives to the lessons of the Pentateuch an interpretation which is liberal, natural, and strict; he establishes order and connection into the Talmudic laws, fixes the duties and rights of each man, sums up the foundation of religion in articles of faith, combats odious superstition, and places in bold relief whatever of pure and elevated morality is contained in the precepts of Moses.

Moses Mendelssohn, always correct and elegant at a time when these qualities should serve as a passport to truth, is nevertheless always full of strength and dignity. He occidentalizes, if we may use this term, the laws of the Pentateuch, and shows their relation to modern ideas: firm in his belief, and energetic in the expression of his pious sentiments, he is not the less so when it is necessary to contend against the abuses which have attached themselves to the Jewish law, and disfigure it like the rust which tarnishes polished steel.

Moses speaks to ignorant hearers, and when he is not able to descend down to their understanding, he surrounds himself with a religious obscurity, leaving to time the care of dissipating it.

Maimon often fears clashing against the ideas of his readers, and it is in the form of an Arabian philosophy that he envelopes his bold opinions.

Mendelssohn speaks to enlightened but timid men, and his thoughts are dressed in brilliant colors, or suffer themselves to be looked for in the dreams of the metaphysician.

The Israelites of Moses knew not yet the true law; those of Maimon knew it badly, and those of Mendelssohn  had already forgotten it.

Moses awakened a religious sense among a people debased by slavery; Maimon regenerated the erudition of Israel, weakened by fanaticism; Mendelssohn revived its spirit benumbed by indifference.

Moses excited the people by recalling back to their memory the past; Maimon animated them by painting the wants of the present; Mendelssohn touched them by calling up before them the future.

In Moses the legislator predominates; in Maimon the philosopher, and in Mendelssohn the poet. Thus Moses menaces, Maimon counsels, Mendelssohn entreats.

And all three, equally sublime in their ideas, equally noble in their expressions, have in view the same object--liberty; and this by the same means--religion. Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Maimon commented on it, and Mendelssohn translated it.

And all three springing from an obscure origin, reached the highest rank through means of labor and courage; Moses was a shepherd, Maimon was a humble merchant, Mendelssohn was a poor book-keeper.

And all three were exposed to the same persecutions. A people yet half-barbarous revolted against Moses; a coalition of would-be learned men burnt the works of Maimon, and a vulgar crowd of fanatics poisoned the triumphs of Mendelssohn.

And all three hoped something better of a future life; Moses scarcely dared to preach the consoling precept of the immortality of the soul; Maimon took shelter under the shield of Plato, Mendelssohn took refuge under the wing of Phedon.

And all three, as if to complete the parallel, died before having seen their works bearing fruit; before having seen the dream of their life realized; none of them entered the promised land!

But all three have claims to the gratitude of posterity. Some one has said, with good reason, that "from Moses to Moses no other one could have been compared to them." The learned, therefore, confound them in the same admiration; and without disturbing oneself concerning the different periods and the different countries which saw the birth of the three Moses, all Israel claim them as their own; science cites them among her fathers; philosophy places them among her elect; and humanity inscribes them among the number of her benefactors.