Traditional Jews used an odd system to determine if God had smiled on a man’s lifework. If he died at a point in the year that signified the things he stood for, this was taken as a sort of prophecy that he had secured divine approval.
There was always some room to question Charlton Heston for his choice to play Moses. Could a human being undertake to convey some glimmer of the great “instructor” of history? When Mr. Heston passed on to his reward at the beginning of the two-week period reserved for Passover preparations, they had their answer. His work had been graced with the imprimatur of fate: his effort to personalize Moses had been a boon to mankind, making him less the stern teacher with the ruler, more the loving teacher who believed in our humanity.
Please permit me to pass on a small lesson we were taught in Hebrew School, one that gives an insight into Mr. Heston’s later passionate advocacy of gun rights. If you know your King James edition of the Bible, you will recognize an odd phrase used as the Israelites leave Egypt. It says (Exodus 13:17-18): “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea, and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.”
That translation leaves you wondering what “harnessed” means, and how that relates to their trying to avoid war with the Philistines. The traditional Jewish translation solves this beautifully, by offering this reading: “…and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” In trying to avoid war and the feelings of regret for leaving it might cause, they took a circuitous route but MADE CERTAIN TO BE ARMED AND READY. This philosophy of abhorring violence but standing prepared to defend freedom by force if necessary was introduced here by Moses and adopted later by Charlton Heston. The beauty of his work on behalf of the Second Amendment is enhanced by the realization that he was merely stepping back into his role as Moses.
Viewed in that context, his marching on behalf of civil rights in the 1960s fits right in to this Mosaic mosaic. The first public move that Moses made after leaving the cushy environment of his adopted home in the king’s palace, was to fight and kill a taskmaster who was brutalizing an innocent. Later Moses risked his body going up against a large group of shepherds in Midian to fight for the right of women to take their turn drawing from the public well. Heston took this model seriously and went out on the firing line, putting his body out there to fight for the downtrodden.
It is a testimony to the quality of the United States that we succeed in producing public figures of high character. Here was a man from a middle-class family in the Chicago area who married his college sweetheart when he was nineteen and stayed with her until his death sixty-four years later. A man who served his country in the Air Force as a gunner and radio man for two years during WWII. A man who brought vigor and dignity to the stage without succumbing to the sleazy subculture that often lurks nearby. A man who fought against racial prejudice, against aborting the innocent unborn and against depriving citizens of their weapons of self-defense.
He never worried if his latest activity on behalf of the good and the right was part of the official platform of one political party or another. He ran the National Rifle Association at an age when he did not need the money, the honor or even the attention, when his reputation could only suffer in the media marketplace. He famously challenged Al Gore to try and take his gun away, declaring it would only be pried from his cold, dead hands.
Charlton Heston’s hands are neither dead nor cold, as their handiwork will live on for a very long time. He was one for the ages. We wish his wife the profound consolation of knowing that she shared a great life with a great man.