RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
And I besought the Lord at that time, saying: ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show your servant greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth that can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty works? Let me go over, I pray You and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill country, and Lebanon.’ But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes and did not listen to me. And the Lord said unto me: ‘Let it suffice you: Speak no more to Me of this matter…for you shall not go over this river Jordan. (Deut. 3:23-27).
Our text is Moses’ moving account of his personal pain at not having his life’s goal fulfilled. He was addressing the generation born in the wilderness after the incident at Mei Merivah, when Moses had struck the rock instead of talking to it. They had not witnessed his shameful loss of control and angry outburst, but must have been aware of their consequence, that Moses was not to lead them into the Promised Land.
The account in our text includes details missing from the original narrative, which makes no mention of his passionate importuning of God. In the original narrative, the Torah had made the following brief statement:
And the lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘ Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num. 20:12).
Having made this statement, the Torah immediately changes the subject, moving to Moses’ sending of messengers to the King of Sodom requesting passage through his territory to the Jordan River. There is no mention of Moses’ intercession with God on his own behalf.. That subject was simply closed.
My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, raised an interesting question about Moses’ account of his fervent plea to enter the Promised land. The Book of Deuteronomy is primarily concerned with two topics, a recap of the laws that had been transmitted to the previous generation (with some important additions), and long passages of reproof aimed at raising the moral consciousness of the assembled masses, some of them using historical experiences to make a point). Moses’ very personal emotional disclosure simply does not fit the general structure of the Fifth Book of the Torah. It is neither legislative nor exhortative.
Rabbi Soloveitchik resolved the difficulty by suggesting that our text was indeed a subtly conveyed reproof with an important moral lesson. The original account in the Book of Numbers makes no mention of the reaction of the assembled Children of Israel to God’s unbelievably harsh punishment of their leader for his seemingly minor infraction. Indeed, their silence was deafening.
No people had ever before had had a leader as dedicated and as selfless as Moses. Two episodes, in particular illustrate his selfless leadership.
The first is the incident of the golden calf. One can easily imagine Moses’ profound disappointment and frustration at the collective apostasy of the Israelites. They had witnessed the unprecedented involvement of God in human history, the series of plagues that had brought a mighty empire to its knees, the miraculous victory of the untrained former slaves over the fierce Amalakite forces, and, of course, the revelation on Mount Sinai. So moved had the Israelites been by their personal experience of the divine epiphany that they had declared: ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do and we shall obey.’ (Ex.24:7). But a mere forty days later, they had forgotten the miracles and the commitments. While Moses tarried with God they had created a substitute deity.
The Divine anger at Israel’s betrayal was palpable: And the Lord spoke onto Moses: ‘Go down for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has dealt corruptly. They have turned quickly out of the way that I commanded them: They have made themselves a molten calf and have worshipped it, and sacrificed onto it, and said: “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”’ And the Lord said to Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now, therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: And I will make of you a great nation.’ And Moses besought the Lord his God and said: Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people, that You have brought forth our of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?...Turn from Your fierce anger and repent of this evil against Your people.(Exodus, 32:7-11; 13).
God had promised to make Moses the forbear of a new nation. A lesser, more ego-driven, person might have been tempted by the offer. But Moses was not. His loyalty to his people was uncompromising. His position was clear: If God would not spare his people; he had no wish to survive. “And now, forgive their sin. And if not, please erase me from Your Book that You have written (Ex. 34:34),” he boldly told God. Moses did not hold his peace. He refused to be silent, but argued with
God on behalf of his people. The Talmud puts it this way: Samuel said: ‘This [verse] teaches that Moses sacrificed himself for them.’ (BT Berakhot 32a)
The second incident followed the despairing report of ten of the twelve spies, who discouraged the people from attempting to conquer the Promised Land. They urged return to Egypt under new leadership, having lost confidence both in Moses and in God.
Their lack of faith seemed unforgivable: And the Lord said onto Moses: ‘How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, notwithstanding all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will smite them with a pestilence, and destroy them and make of you a nation greater and mightier than they…. [Then Moses said]: “And now, I pray You, let the power of the Lord be great, according as You have spoken, saying: ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving inequity and transgression, who will by no means clear the guilty …Pardon, I pray you the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your loving kindness, just as you have forgiven this people form Egypt even until now. “ And the Lord said: ‘I have pardoned according to your word.’ (Num. 15: 11-12; 17-20).
God had again threatened to destroy the Israelites and to make Moses the forbear of an even greater nation than them. Once again, Moses refused to be silent. He protested Gods’ judgment, defending his flock notwithstanding their unconscionable behavior.
The children of Israel must surely have been aware of Moses’ almost impertinent advocacy of their cause. He had been prepared to challenge God not to frustrate their dream of becoming a great nation.
But when his own dream was shattered and his hope of leading his people into the Promised Land frustrated, his people failed to protest. They did not say that unless Moses led them across the Jordan, they would not go either. Their silence was deafening. They did not reciprocate his passionate advocacy.
Rabbi Soloveitchick suggested that our text is the subtle articulation of the imperative of gratitude. It was a gentle criticism of a people that had not repaid kindness with kindness--that had not learnt the lesson of gratitude. Moses was determined to remind the new generation of the importance of this imperative.
We all need this reminder. We are prone to say: “What have you done for us lately? “ We quickly forget the kindnesses from which we have benefited and have too often failed to reciprocate.