Our parashah contains what is surely one of the saddest verses in the Torah:
אשר נתתי להם
“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity 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).
For forty years, Moses had led the people through the most dramatic events in their early formative history. First, standing up to the power of the Egyptian Pharaoh with his constant changes of mind as the plagues descended upon his people, culminating in the devastating destruction of all the Egyptian first born. Then the bitter complaints of the Israelites at the shores of the Red Sea: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness” (Exod. 14:11). Then – following the awe-inspiring revelation at Mount Sinai – the harrowing sight of the Israelites dancing before the Golden Calf, exclaiming “This is your God, O Israel, who led you out of the Land of Israel” (Exod. 32:4).
Then the constant grumbling in the wilderness: the food is boring, we want to have fowl to eat, there isn’t enough water. Then the despairing response to the report of the 10 scouts: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt. . . . Let us choose a captain and return to Egypt” (Num. 14: 2, 4). Then the response to the rebellion led by Korah and his cohorts. Through all of this, despite temporary discouragement, Moses had served as a model of leadership, chastising the people for their failures of will, but defending the people when God proposes to destroy them and create a new people in their stead.
Now comes an unexpectedly withering rebuke from God: for an alleged lack of trust, a failure to publicly sanctify God, Moses and Aaron will not live to witness the completion of their task. They will die with their missions incomplete, their people still outside the Promised Land. It would take a great novelist with deep psychological insight to articulate what must have been going through the mind of Moses as he heard these words, and in the moments.
What was the sin that could have justified this harsh rebuke and this disheartening punishment? Most knowledgeable Jews will respond, It is because God told him to speak to the rock (Num. 20:8), but Moses actually struck the rock twice with his rod (Num. 20:11). But in addition to this being a rather trivial departure from an arbitrary instruction that hardly seems to warrant such a response, the fact is that there is no consensus among the classical Jewish commentators about the nature of Moses’ sin. Don Isaac Abravanel, the late fifteenth-century Spanish courtier whose massive biblical commentaries are an encyclopaedic summary of Spanish Jewish culture, actually lists ten different interpretations of the nature of Moses’ sin from the literature of Midrash and medieval commentators, before proceeding to present his own view. I will mention briefly three of these views of Moses’ failing, as illustrations of the broader failures of leadership.
The first is that after hearing the complaint of the Israelites, “Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tent of meeting and fell upon their faces” (Num. 20:6). Now this might be understood as an expression of deep piety: confronted with a difficult situation, they seek to recharge their spiritual batteries in the centre of holiness, where the Divine Presence would be most accessible. But there is a strong rabbinic tradition that views this very differently: as a flight from reality, a withdrawal from encountering the problem at hand. The analogy given in Midrash Tanhumah is of an governor in an important province of a kingdom: when a revolt breaks out, instead of confronting the challenge directly, he flees and takes refuge in the royal palace.
This is one of the pitfalls of religious leadership: the temptation to avoid the true challenges of the real world and to take refuge within the comparative safety and isolation of a church, or synagogue, or mosque where they feel secure. The temptation to avoid addressing issues of moral controversy in their sermons, and to limit their message exclusively to the explanation of ancient texts. The temptation to use the rediscovery of spirituality as an escape from confronting the genuine needs of their people and of people in the wider society. In the biblical narrative, God does not allow Moses and Aaron to remain very long in the Tent of Meeting, but immediately instructs them to return to their people and respond to the challenge at hand.
A second interpretation of the sin is based on the words of Moses and Aaron, Shim’u nah ha-morim, translated in both the old and new JPS as “Hear now you rebels” (Num. 20:10). This insulting formulation is viewed by many commentators as an expression of anger and disdain for the people they are leading. There is some debate about the meaning of the Hebrew morim. The most familiar meaning is “teachers,” and in this view it is a sarcastic rebuke: “Listen you who presume to teach your own teachers!” A second meaning is from the verb to shoot: “Listen you archers, you who shoot against your leaders with arrows!” And a third associates it with the Greek word moros meaning fool (the basis of the English word “moron”). In any case it is an expression of contempt for amkha, the ordinary people of Israel.
There may be times when it seems as if our people deserve little better than this disdainful characterization. It certainly appears as if the Israelites in the wilderness period deserved no better. There are occasions when rabbis, exasperated with the petty complaints within a community, or among its governing board, complaints and criticisms that make it extremely difficult to fulfil the role to which they are dedicating their lives, may feel tempted to lash out in such disdainful language, chastising the people they serve. But this is another failure of leadership. True leaders must never become alienated from their people, must never treat their people with condescension or disdain.
A third interpretation of the great sin is based on the continuation of the above verse: ha-min ha-sela ha-zeh notsi lakhem mayim, “shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Num. 20:10). It seems as if this is a rhetorical question, based on the assumption that it is an impossible task. Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (RaMBaN) read it differently, placing the emphasis on the word “we”. In his view, Moses and Aaron gave the impression that they were the ones would perform the miracle, not God. Their sin in this reading is one of hubris, leaders so impressed by their own importance that they forget they are only instruments of a far greater force.
We find this failure so often in our society. Executives of large corporations that oversee the awarding of bonuses – even in times of economic crisis—that are many times larger for a single year than most of their employees will earn in a lifetime. Political leaders who think themselves entitled to receive compensation from the tax-payers for fulfilling desires for amenities that are totally superfluous. Religious leaders who seem to assume that their position entitles them to treat children under their influence with cynical abuse. No leader is indispensable. The goals to which they aspire, the needs of the community, the power that comes from a force beyond themselves—these are what will endure.
The heart-breaking narrative about Moses and Aaron teaches us about the pitfalls and failures of leadership not only in the Bible but in our own time. But it also gives us the assurance that—as their ultimate goal of entry into the Promise Land would be fulfilled by a new generation of leaders—so our own goals are not dependent on any individuals today. Human leaders are, by definition, imperfect and susceptible to failure. It is the goal, the aspiration, the ideal, that endures.
(The idea for this d’var torah is based on a sermon delivered by my father, Rabbi Harold I. Saperstein on 27 June 1957, to a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, published in Witness from the Pulpit: Topical Sermons 1933–1980, edited with annotations by Marc Saperstein [Lexington Books, 2000], pp. 186–93).
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.