Moses’ Greatest Gift, And Tragedy


 Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 8:05 p.m.

Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41 

Haftara: Joshua 2:1-24


Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the difficulties — even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history who nevertheless sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation, failing to direct the people toward the very goal of their Exodus; the conquest of and settlement of the Land of Israel. Where has he gone wrong, and why?

From the very beginning of his ministry, when the Hebrews were at the lowest point, God instructs Moses to raise their spirits with five promises: “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I will save you from their slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…, I will take you to Myself as a nation … and I will bring you to the land [that] I shall give it to you as a heritage” [Exodus 6:6-8].

Now the first four were fulfilled. Only the final one is lacking: entry into the land. Why the delay? It cannot only be that the Miraglim, the 10 scouts — each princes of their respective tribes — were frightened by the superior strength of the Canaanites [Numbers 13:31, since a war against the Canaanites was no greater a trial than standing up to power of Egypt, or diving into the Reed Sea.

Apparently, something changed between the splitting of the Reed Sea and the proposed conquest of the land. As we have seen last week, the Hebrews have intensified their complaining, not only asking for water but a more varied menu, from meat to fish and from cucumbers to garlic! [Num. 11:4-5].

Can it be that the Hebrews – after all they have overcome– are now whining for the stinking sardines that they used to gather at the foot of the Nile? Moses feels inadequate to deal with this, preferring death at God’s hands to responsibility for leading such an ungrateful people [Num. 11:11-15]. 

God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders in the Tent of Communion, appointing them as his assistants in leading the people. God will cause some of Moses’ spiritual energy to devolve upon them, enabling Moses to share his awesome responsibilities [Num. 11:16-17]. At the same time, God will send quails to allay the people’s lust for meat. 

But then, in this week’s biblical portion, Moses seems to make a gross miscalculation by sending out a reconnaissance mission, either initiated by God to map out the route towards conquest [Num. 13:1, 2], or instigated by the people who want a report about what kind of enemy awaits them on their way to Israel [Deuteronomy 1:22].

Moses apparently felt that this “new” Israelite attitude of kvetching and lusting was indeed impelled, even inspired, by food. He therefore exhorts them, as they survey the land and the enemy — to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land,” to show to the Hebrews [Num. 13:20]. He hopes the nation will be so excited by the huge and luscious grapes that they will embark on their conquest with alacrity.

What Moses fails to appreciate, I believe, is that the real problem lies not with food but with his own form of “distance” leadership – whether from the lofty heights of Sinai or the inner sanctum of the Tent of Communion. You will remember that Moses had initially rejected God’s offer of leadership because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” [Ex 4:10]. This cannot simply mean that he stuttered and stammered because God immediately answers, “Is it not I who gives [or takes away] speech?” Nevertheless, Moses continues to reiterate his problem of being afflicted by “stopped up lips,” aral sfatayim. I would maintain that Moses means that he is a man who can’t make friendly small talk. Moses is not a man of the people, a man of conversation and infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites.

As the Bible itself testifies, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult Divine service” (Ralbag’s interpretation of Ex. 6:9). Moses, the “man of God” and “servant of the Lord” remains “distant” from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations more than a leader for his generation. 

Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; instead, he dedicates his time to speaking to the Lord in the Tent of Communion, far removed from the encampment [Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89]. It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself — and in the midst of the people [Num. 11:26].

Moses’ greatest asset — his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” the Divine will — is also his most profound tragedy, the cause of his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be re-inspired and recharged with new challenges and lofty goals if they are to be above petty squabbles and materialistic desires.

The kvetching is not because they really want the leeks and the onions; it is because they don’t know what they want. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, they actually need, as we all need, a mission, a purpose for being. This, however, will have to await a new leader, who may be less a man of God but more a man of the people. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.