A Moses Jataka?

The jataka tales are stories of the Buddha’s former lives. These stories tell of his lifetimes as a “bodhisatta” or being bound towards enlightenment for the sake of all beings (later “bodhisattva”). As a bodhisatta the Buddha cultivates the “paramis” or perfections of character to the extreme, in preperation for his last life when he will discover and teach the Dhamma (liberating truth). The jatakas have been shown to contain some tales original with Buddhists and some from common stocks of Indian and Mediterranean folklore- some of the stories also show up in Hindu and Jain collections, Aesop’s fables, and one even shows up later transformed into a medieval story of a Christian saint. Yitzhak Buxbaum recently pointed out that a Hasidic tale appears to be based on a Jataka tale- a story reconfigured to be about Moses! This is a first as far as I know:

   A Hasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Lazer of Pshevorsk said a wise man told him that there is a midrash which says that Moses saw a hawk chasing after a mouse and he had compassion on the mouse and protected it from harm. But Moses sensed that the hawk was angry– this was its food after all– so Moses cut a bit of flesh from his body to feed and soothe the hawk. Thus, Moses’s compassion for a living creature was with self-sacrifice.

 Sichatan shel Avdei Avot, vol. 2, p. 288 (see Hungry Tigress p.116-7 for one of several similar Jataka tales) Original source: http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?llr=nqsvr8cab&v=001kpRLqdWUZBwdVlP-NBsN7jO4Yyp65j05otHYzoZPY1pIHjc4LFePYsRkiA959gPyIJ0TCj2UftpEykalMUjFPf4I3sqbd-uxpzu5iDPEAbjTgRrmOkHj6g%3D%3D 

Several Jataka tales feature the motif of the Buddha making an extreme sacrifice for the sake of another. Sometimes he is an animal giving to a human, sometimes a human giving to an animal, sometimes an animal giving to an animal or a human giving to a human. In this way the Buddha shows his transcendence of such distinctions and his thorough, unflinching and perfect generosity. How interesting to see one of these tales apparently become a part of the legend of Moshe Rabeinu. As Buxbaum points out in his original posting, the mention of an unspecified “wise man” and “a midrash” are clues that this story did not originate in a traditional Jewish source. I can imagine the story travelling across countries, losing its Buddhist trappings, being picked up by some Jewish maggid (storyteller) and eventually applied to Moses. Thank you to Mr. Buxbaum.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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