In this week’s Sidra we read one of the saddest stories in the whole of our Jewish literature. How sad and how undeserved that the greatest of our teachers, Moshe Rabbenu, the most dedicated and faithful servant of God, the most humble and tolerant of men, should be cruelly deprived of the crown of all his endeavours and achievements, barred from leading his people into the promised land. What did he do to deserve this harsh punishment? Our Torah reading tells us: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ’Because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I shall give them.” In perfectly understandable frustration, bitterness and anger at his rebellious, ungrateful, short-sighted people, Moses said: “Hear now, you rebels, shall we, Aaron and I, bring forth water from you out of this rock?” He should, of course have said: “Is the Lord to bring forth water for you?” The people should on no account be led to believe that Moses and Aaron are wonder- workers capably of bringing forth water from out of a rock when struck by the rod of Moses. The credit for providing water for the people should belong to God and to God alone. God alone is to be sanctified in the eyes of the children of Israel. The lesson is repeated and reinforced in the second version of the event: “You shall ascend mount Nebo in the land of Moab, and die on the mountain, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin by failing to uphold my sanctity among the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32)
Throughout thirty eight years Moses had attempted to awaken and strengthen ’ Emunah’, faith and trust in God among the children of Israel. Just once, in a fleeting moment of anger, bitterness and frustration, in momentary forgetfulness he failed, and the punishment was swift and severe. It is the saddest example of a truth known in world history: The higher the position of trust, responsibility and leadership of men, the harder and swifter the downfall. Three things, the Talmud says, never return: The lost opportunity, the shot arrow and the spoken word. This was realised by Moses, alas too late!
There is, however, another deeper reason for the strong condemnation of Moses. On no account were the children of Israel to venerate and worship Moses instead of God. For that reason Moses was omitted from the Pesach Haggadah. For that reason, also the Torah tells us at the end of Deuteronomy: “No one knows the burial place of Moses to this day.” Moses’s burial place was not to be identified lest his descendants or his followers regard it as a holy shrine to be worshipped instead of the temple and later the synagogue. Furthermore Moses was not be an intercessor between human beings and the divine; he was not to be worshipped instead of God. Christians might pray ‘through Jesus Christ, our Lord”. They might worship the Pope. They might make pilgrimages to the shrines of their saints. Judaism has always strongly opposed and frowned upon the worship of men. The greatest of our teachers, though respected and revered, were always described as wholly human, with all their frailties and faults, far from perfect, let alone saintly.
What the worship of mortals can lead to was first shown by the Roman Emperors and then throughout the ages right up to Hitler, as I witnessed the people’s adulation and worship of him at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The modern veneration shown mainly by gullible youngsters of their spiritual mentors by the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas and the Scientologists has all too often led to tragedies. One Sunday I was standing with thousands of others in St. Peter Square in Rome. At midday the Pope appeared briefly at a window of the Vatican. Witnessing the ecstasy, the veneration and adulation of the masses made me, as a Jew, feel ill at ease. Such veneration and adulation are not confined to other religions. One can see the same phenomena whenever and wherever the Beltzer, Satmarer, Lubavitcher Chasidim meet their Rebbe. When veneration and adulation reach a point at which pronouncements of the Rebbe are never questioned, his writings are regarded as gospel truth, his demands are instantly met, his authority supreme, then a Jew, follower of the Mosaic tradition, has reason to feel ill at ease.
Rabbi Eliezer taught: “Not according to office or position, immaterial whether hereditary, appointed or usurped, but according to his deeds does the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, rest upon a person.” May the day dawn speedily when the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, rests with all who occupy high office and authority, according to their good and righteous deeds. Then the dangerous, foolish, excessive veneration and adulation of people instead of God will cease forever.
Rabbi Harry Jacobi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.