Parashat Shelah: Moses's greatest gift and saddest tragedy

Moses' greatest asset - his closeness to God and his ability to "divine" the divine will - is also the cause of his remoteness from the masses.

moses 88 (photo credit: )
moses 88
(photo credit: )
"And you shall strengthen yourselves, and you shall take from the fruits of the land; and the days were when the first grapes became ripe." (Numbers 13: 20) Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the profound difficulties - and even tragedy - of Moses, the greatest prophet in history who, as leader, sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation. The bitter truth that emerges in this week's portion is that Moses must admit failure when it comes to the nation he led out of bondage. The very goal of the Exodus was settlement in Israel, yet this mission is nearly aborted because of the report of the spies. Where has Moses gone wrong? From the time of Moses's appointment, when the Hebrews were at the lowest point of their Egyptian oppression, God instructs him to raise their spirits with five divine promises: "Therefore say to the Israelites [in My name], '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 which I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I shall give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord" (Exodus 6:6-8). Thanks to God's miracles, by the time we come to this week's portion, Moses has fulfilled the first four divine "redemptions." Only the final one, the entry into God's land, is lacking. As our portion reveals, the Israelites delay and even demur in fulfilling this last stage. Why? One possible answer may be that 10 of the 12 scouts - each a prince of his tribe - were frightened by the superior strength of the Canaanite residents (Numbers 13:31: "We cannot go forward against these people... they are too strong for us"). But such a position is bewildering. Who would have thought that a war against the Canaanites posed a greater challenge than standing up to the power and might of Egypt or, for that matter, a greater trial than the risk of leaping into the Reed (Red) Sea? Since God (through Moses) has already demonstrated His power to free the Israelites from the Egyptians, why does the nation now balk at confronting the Canaanites? Apparently, a serious breach has developed during the years between the splitting of the sea and the proposed conquest of the Land. As shown in last week's commentary, the complaints of the Hebrews have changed to an intense, continual kvetch. The understandable plea for water has turned into an almost mindless lust (ta'ava) for a more varied menu, from meat to fish to cucumbers to garlic (Numbers 11:4,5). Moses is at his wits' end: after all the trials that the Hebrews have overcome, is it possible that they have nothing better to do than whine for the sardines they once netted at the foot of the Nile (ibid 11:5)? Moses's frustration causes him to plead for God to take his life. He feels totally inadequate, and prefers death at the hand of God rather than life leading such an ungrateful people (11:11-15). Instead, God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders who are to be brought to the Tent of Communion. From now on Moses is to avail himself of their assistance, made possible by the fact that God causes some of Moses's spiritual gifts to devolve upon these elders. Thus the greatest of prophets is to share his awesome responsibility (11:16,17) with 70 elders. At the same time God sends quails so that the lusting nation can indulge in flesh. But just one portion later (this week's Shelah), it seems Moses made a gross miscalculation. The text describes how Moses sends out a reconnaissance, either initiated by God as an initial foray to map out the impending campaign (Numbers 13:1,2), or instigated by the people who wanted to know what kind of enemy awaited them (Deuteronomy 1:22). Apparently, Moses decided that the kvetching was all about food. Therefore he exhorts the scouts that when they return with their report about the terrain of the Land and the nature of the enemy, they should "strengthen themselves and take from the fruits of the land" to display to the Hebrews (13:20). The plan is that the nation will be so excited by the huge, luscious grapes that nothing will stop them from embarking on their conquest. Apparently, what grabs the nation's imagination is the possibility of a gourmet menu. What Moses may have failed to realize is that the real problem lay not with the Israelite gastronomic drive but rather with Moses' form of "long-distance" leadership - either from the lofty heights of Mount Sinai or the inner sanctuary of the Tent of Communion. We should keep in mind that initially Moses rejects God's command to lead because "I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). This cannot only mean that he stuttered and stammered - because God's immediate response is, "Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?" and yet Moses continues to speak of having "stopped up lips" (aral sfatayim). I would like to suggest that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of "heavy speech" rather than a man of "friendly chatter," a prophet of theology and law, morality and ethics, in constant touch with the divine. Moses's intellect actually "kisses" the divine intellect, until his Torah becomes God's Torah (Guide for the Perplexed). Moses is not a man of the people, a man of small talk who can "sell" God's program to the Israelites, a Madison Avenue product. 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 to Exodus 6:9). Moses, the "man [or husband] of God" (Deuteronomy 33:1) as well as the "servant of the Lord," remains "distant" from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations rather than a leader for his own generation. Indeed, Moses does not walk among the people; he speaks to the Lord from within the Tent of Communion (Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89). It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment (Numbers 11:26). Moses' greatest asset - his closeness to God and his ability to "divine" the divine will - is also the cause of his remoteness from the masses. If a congregation is to rise above petty squabbles and materialistic goals, it must be constantly reinspired. The kvetching of the people goes beyond a craving for leeks and onions; it's the existential kvetch of not knowing what they want. In truth, they actually need - as we all do - a mission, a purpose for being. As it prepares to enter the Promised Land, the nation needs to be recharged with light strong enough to illuminate the world. This, however, will have to await a new leader, perhaps less a man of God and more a man of the people. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.