Parashat Va'et'hanan: Leaders and ladders

The midrash pictures Moses as begging to enter the Holy Land even as an insect, just so he can see it.

moses god 88 298 (photo credit: )
moses god 88 298
(photo credit: )
Our biblical portion this week opens with a poignant entreaty by Moses: "Please may I be allowed to pass through and see the good land which is beyond the Jordan..." The midrash pictures Moses going so far as to beseech entry even as an insect, just to be able to see, touch and traverse the good and holy land which is our legacy and patrimony. But the Bible records Moses continuing: "But the land was angry with me because of you and would not hearken to me..." (Deuteronomy 3:25). Why does Moses blame the Israelites, saying "because of you"? Was it not because Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it? (Numbers 20:12). I believe that a deeper insight into Moses's character and personality will explain precisely what Moses meant when he said it was because of the Israelites that he was prevented from entering the Land of Israel. From the very beginning, Moses was reluctant to accept the leadership position. His argument is stated very clearly: I beg of You, my Lord, I am not a man of words, not from yesterday, not from the day before, but from the time when You first spoke to Your servant; heavy of speech and heavy of tongue am I" (Exodus 4:10). Contrary to conventional wisdom, Moses is not saying that he stammers; after all, God immediately counters: "Who gives a person a mouth with which to speak... if not I, who am the Lord? Now go and I shall deal with your mouth and I will teach you how to speak" (ibid 4:11), and yet Moses nevertheless continues to repeat the same argument (for example, 6:30). Did God not promise to cure his stutter? The biblical text itself states that "[the Israelites] did not listen to Moses because of impatience and hard work" (Exodus 6:9) - usually taken to mean that the impatience and back-breaking work of an enslaved and downtrodden people made it difficult if not impossible for them to believe that their situation could ever change. The medieval commentator Ralbag (Gershonides) has a radically different interpretation of the biblical words: Because of Moses's impatience with the masses and because of the prophet's hard spiritual work to elevate himself intellectually and religiously he - Moses - would not be capable of convincing the people to go with God. Moses already had experience with the Hebrews' circumstances. After he had killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave - probably hoping to thereby spark a revolution of the Hebrews against their Egyptian overlords - he finds the Hebrews squabbling among themselves and grossly ungrateful for his selfless deed: "Who made you a minister and judge over us? Do you wish to slay me just as you slew the Egyptian?" (Exodus 2:14). And so Moses leaves Egyptian society and escapes to the desert of Midian, where - in the isolation which only a shepherd in a wasteland can experience - he joins himself to a famous seeker of God named Jethro, preferring the eternal "fellowship" of God to the fickle moods of a fractious people. When Moses called himself "heavy of speech," he wasn't referring to a speech defect; he was rather referring to his prophetic personality. He understood that turning the Hebrews around, transforming them from embittered and small-minded slaves into an inspired nation committed to becoming a holy people and a kingship of priest/teachers would require nurturing, small talk, listening to paltry concerns and petty complaints until - step by step - he would succeed in convincing them, elevating them until they became a "God enthused" nation. "This is not for me," the Midianite seeker of God explains. "I am a man of heavy speech, not of small talk; I cannot be expected to speak to the God of the cosmos, to have my intellect discern the intent of God's Active Intellect so that the Torah of Moses will be be the Torah of God, and at the same time deal with the self-centered resentments and rebellions of a nation-in-progress. I don't have the patience for it; I'm working too hard spiritually and climbing too high to be brought down to earth by small-minded people." God nevertheless insists, and Moses attempts to acquiesce. In the end, however, he fails; he listens to the kvetching, he suffers the rebellions and revolutions, but eventually loses patience. He realizes that he hasn't brought his people to God, he hasn't elevated them to higher values - and he loses patience. He calls them rebels and wishes to strike this stiff-necked nation! He loses the ability to speak to them, to teach them, to nurture and guide them. As a consequence he cannot continue to lead them and bring them into the Promised Land. But it's not my fault, says Moses. I explained from the beginning that one who truly speaks to God would not be able to speak to puny, petty and puerile people. It was "because of you," your inability to learn and grow quickly enough, that I lost my patience and love for you, resulting in my having to relinquish my dream... Story postscript: The story is told that the founder of the hassidic movement, Reb Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, would always pray the Additional Amida on the Sabbath morning for an inordinately long time, almost a full hour. The hungry hassidim became impatient for Kiddush. The gabbai (sexton) had a great idea: The people could quietly leave after they concluded their own prayer, go home, make Kiddush and still return before their revered rebbe ended his prayer. That Sabbath, however, when a large group quietly walked out after only 10 minutes, the rebbe took three steps backward, signaling the end of his prayer as well. The congregants all ran back into the synagogue. The Ba'al Shem Tov explained: Every Sabbath, he said, I rise to great spiritual heights, especially at the Additional Prayer. I feel that I am climbing a ladder to the supernal heavens before the heavenly throne of God. But the rungs of the ladder are the souls of my hassidim; without them, I cannot climb. This Sabbath morning, after 10 minutes I felt the ladder crash to the ground. I had no choice; I had to conclude my prayer... The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.