The Distance Between Moses And The People


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 8:11 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Havdalah: 9:20 p.m.

Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the difficulties — even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, who sees himself losing the fealty of his people. Moses feels that he is failing to direct the Israelites toward the very goal of the Exodus: the conquest 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 of Egyptian oppression, God instructs Moses to raise their despairing spirits with five promises: “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. …” [Exodus 6:6-8].

The first four redemptions are fulfilled. Only the final one is lacking: the entry of God’s nation into His land. What causes the Israelites to delay and even demur in fulfilling this final stage of redemption? It cannot only be that the 10 scouts were frightened by the strength of the Canaanites since a war against the Canaanites was no greater trial than standing up to the superior might of Egypt, or diving into the Sea of Reeds (the Yam Suf). If God has demonstrated His ability to deliver them from the Egyptians, why do they now balk at taking on the Canaanites?

Apparently, something has changed during the intervening year between the splitting of the Yam Suf and the proposed conquest of the Promised Land. As we have seen in last week’s commentary, the Hebrews have intensified their complaining, not only asking for water — an existential need — but now by lusting after a more varied menu, from meat to fish, from cucumbers to garlic [Numbers, 11:4-5]!

Can it be that the Hebrews, after all that they have overcome, are now whining for the stinking sardines which they used to gather at the foot of the Nile during the period of their persecution and enslavement [Num. 11:5]? Moses feels totally inadequate to deal with them, 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 the greatest of prophets to share his awesome responsibility of leadership [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 Torah portion, Moses seems to make a gross miscalculation by sending out a reconnaissance mission, either initiated by God as an initial foray to map out the Israelites’ route towards conquest [Num. 13:1-2], or instigated by the people who wanted a report about what kind of enemy awaits them [Deuteronomy 1:22].

Moses apparently feels that this new kvetching and lusting was impelled, even inspired, by food. He therefore exhorts them, as they survey the land’s terrain and the enemy’s nature, to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land,” to show to the Hebrews [Num. 13:20]. Hopefully, 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 is that the real problem lies not with an Israelite drive for nutritional pleasure but with his own form of “distance” leadership, whether from the heights of Mount Sinai or from 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 slow of speech and slow of tongue” [Ex. 4:10]. If that meant only that he stuttered and stammered, God immediately answers by saying, “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 is actually saying that he is a man of heavy speech rather than friendly small talk, a prophet who is in almost constant contact with the Divine on issues of theology and law, morality and ethics. Moses is not a man of the people, a man of infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites by sugarcoating it. As the Bible itself testifies, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his lack of patience (kotzer ruah). He is a prophet for all the generations more than a leader for his generation.

Indeed, Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; he dedicates his time to speaking to the Lord in the Tent of Communion [Num. 7:89]. It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself, 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 distance from the people, his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be reinspired 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, Israel.