Thursday, 30 Jun 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Ask most people familiar with the Bible why Moses did not get to lead his people into the Promised Land and they will give an answer based on our parashah: he struck the rock, when God told him to speak to the rock. The biblical text, however is not nearly as clear; the explanation attributed to God, directed to both Moses and Aaron, is not a positive act but a failure to do something:

יען אשר לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את הקהל

הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם.

“Because you did not trust Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12).

Don Isaac Abravanel was one of the great Jewish commentators of the late Middle Ages. He served as courtier in three kingdoms (Portugal, Aragon-Castile, and Naples), left Spain with his fellow Jews with the Expulsion in the summer of 1492, and still managed to write enough to fill impressive dossiers for several full-time Jewish Studies professors.  His massive biblical commentaries serve as an encyclopaedic overview of the culture of medieval Sephardic Jewry.

In responding to the question about Moses’ sin, Abravanel reviews ten different opinions in the exegetical literature available to him, commenting briefly on the inadequacy of each, before proposing his own explanation:

1.    Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it (Midrash, Rashi)
2.    Moses insulted his people by referring to them as morim, “rebels” (Midrash)
3.    Moses displayed unnecessary anger against the people, a failure of moral virtue (Rambam)
4.    Moses presented himself and Aaron, rather than God, as the agents who would bring forth water
       (Rabbenu Hananel cited by Ramban)
5.    Moses struck the rock not once but twice (refuted by Ibn Ezra)
6.    Moses failed to praise God in song for the water that emerged (attributed to “some people”)
7.    The Israelites wanted Moses to get water from a different rock and he refused (attributed to “other people”)
8.    Through his anger, Moses interrupted the communion with God necessary to bring forth water
       (Ibn Ezra combining other views)
9.    Moses failed to proclaim the miracle publicly (Joseph Albo)
10.  Moses actually did not sin at all (attributed to “contemporary scholars”)

Following this review of previous suggestions, Abravanel sets forth his own view: that Aaron was punished for the sin of the golden calf (he should have been prepared to sacrifice his life rather make an idol), and Moses for adding inappropriate instructions to the scouts he sent to reconnoitre the land of Canaan.

Needless to say, subsequent Jewish exegetical and homiletical literature provides new explanations as well.

What can we learn from this lack of consensus, this apparent confusion on such a fundamental exegetical question? First, it should remind us that our Bible is not a book of Aristotelian philosophy, starting with clear propositions and then moving systematically by accepted rules of reasoning to valid conclusions. So many of the passages of our biblical text, especially when read in the Hebrew original, are ambiguous, multivalent, open-ended, susceptible to various interpretations, which some may attempt to refute but cannot be summarily dismissed. Those who claim to know beyond doubt the meaning of “God’s word” in Scripture often overlook the ambiguities in the texts the use as basis for their claims.

I believe that this plethora of explanations in our exegetical tradition can also lead us to a different reading of the passage. Let us start with empirical reality in the biblical narrative: Moses died before he had the opportunity to lead the people into the land of their destiny. There is no ambiguity about this. The next step is for people to ask “Why did he not complete his task?” On the assumption that things happen because God wants them to, there must be a reason—and it cannot be simply because Joshua was better qualified for the military challenges of an invasion. God is just, so Moses must have done something wrong. And so the narrative traditions are searched and mined in an effort to locate some sin that could explain this great disappointment. But nothing in the narratives seems to be an adequate explanation. Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that often disappointment comes, sometimes tragedy occurs, that are not caused by the sin of those who suffer.

We see this in our own human psychology. When a terrible thing happens unexpectedly to us, or to a member of our family, a natural reaction is to ask ourselves, “Why am I being punished? What did I do wrong?” And so we review our memories of the past months, or years, or decades, dredging up feelings of guilt about occasions when we lost our temper, people we hurt or insulted, individuals or causes we failed to support in times of their need. We can make ourselves miserable searching for such an explanation. But—without denying that our behaviour has not been perfect and sometimes has negative consequences—the reality may well be that bad things happen that are not punishments for our failings or sins.

Certainly there is no indication in the biblical narrative that Moses himself spent time and energy wrestling with the question, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”, the question that so exercised Abravanel and other commentators. Devastated as he must have felt to hear the pronouncement in Numbers 20:12, two verses later he is facing the next challenge, sending messengers to the king of Edom. Later he implored God for permission to set foot in the land across the Jordan, but — when his request is summarily denied—he continues with his final message of counsel to the people (Deut. 3:23–28). And unlike so many other leaders and rulers both in the past and in our own time, Moses makes acts to ensure that his successor, Joshua, will be respected by the people, confident of his own abilities, and ready to continue in the task to which Moses had dedicated so many years of his life. Perhaps his most important teaching, coming at the end of his career, is that the crucial question is not “Why did this happen to me?” but rather “How can I make the best of the situation I am facing”: the best for myself, and the best for the people I truly care about.  

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein:
1 July 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.