Moses’ greatest asset also his deepest tragedy

EFRAT, Israel — “‘ … And you shall strengthen yourselves, and you shall take from the fruits of the land.’ And the days were season of the first grapes.” (Numbers 13: 20)
Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the profound difficulties — and even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, as a leader who sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation. Moses feels that he is failing to direct the people he took out of Egyptian bondage toward the very goal of their Exodus: the conquest of and settlement of the land of Israel. Where has he gone wrong, and why?
From the very beginning of his ministry, when the Hebrews were at the lowest point of their Egyptian oppression, God instructs Moses to raise their depressed and despairing spirits with five Divine promises: “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I will save you from their slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…, I will take you to Myself as a nation… and I will bring you to the land which I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I shall give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Now Moses has already succeeded — thanks to the Divine miracles — in fulfilling the first four Divine “redemptions.” Only the final one is lacking: the entry of God’s nation into His land. What causes the Israelites to delay and even demur in fulfilling this final stage of redemption? It cannot only be that the 10 scouts — each princes of their respective tribes — were frightened by the superior strength of the Canaanite residents (Numbers 13:31) “We cannot go forward against these people… they are too strong for us”), since a war against the Canaanites was no greater trial than standing up to the superior power and might of Egypt, or diving into the Reed Sea. If God (through Moses) had demonstrated His ability to deliver them from the hands of the Egyptians, why do they now balk at taking on the Canaanites?
Apparently, something has changed during the intervening year between the splitting of the Reed Sea and the proposed conquest of the Promised Land. As we have seen in last week’s commentary, the Hebrews have intensified their complaining, not only asking for water — an existential need — but now by lusting after a more varied menu, from meat to fish and from cucumbers, to garlic! (Numbers 11:4, 5)
Moses is at his wit’s end; can it be that the Hebrews — after all the trials that they have successfully overcome — are now whining for the stinking sardines which they used to gather at the foot of the Nile during the period of their persecution and enslavement? (Ibid. 11:5) He feels totally inadequate to deal with them, preferring death at God’s hands to responsibility for leading such an ungrateful people (Ibid. 11:11-15).
God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders in the Tent of Communion, appointing them as his assistants in leading the people. God will cause some of Moses’ spiritual energy to devolve upon them, enabling the greatest of prophets to share his awesome responsibility of leadership (11:16,17). At the same time, God will send quails to allay the people’s lust for meat.
But then, in this week’s Biblical portion, Moses seems to make a gross miscalculation by sending out a reconnaissance mission, either initiated by God as an initial foray in order to map out the Israelites’ route toward conquest (Numbers 13:1, 2), or instigated by the people who wanted a report about what kind of enemy awaits them on their way to Israel (Deuteronomy 1:22). Moses apparently felt that this “new” Israelite mentality of kvetching and lusting was indeed impelled, even inspired, by food. He therefore exhorts them as they survey the terrain of the land and of the nature of the enemy — to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land” to show to the Hebrews (13:20). Hopefully, the nation will be so excited by the huge and luscious grapes that they will embark on their conquest with alacrity! Apparently, what is actually now grabbing their attention is a gourmet diet.
What Moses fails to appreciate, I believe, is that the real problem lies not with an Israelite drive for nutritional pleasure but with his own form of “distance” leadership — whether from the lofty heights of Mount Sinai or the inner sanctum of the “Tent of Communion.” You will remember that Moses had initially rejected God’s offer of leadership because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This cannot simply mean that he stuttered and stammered — because God immediately answers by saying, “Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?” Nevertheless, Moses continues to re-iterate his problem of being afflicted by “stopped-up lips” (aral sfatayim). I would maintain that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of heavy speech rather than friendly small talk, a prophet who is in almost constant contact with the Divine in issues of theology and law, morality and ethics. Moses is not a man of the people, a man of small talk and infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites by sugar-coating it. As the Bible itself testifies, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his (Moses’!) lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult Divine service” (Ralbag’s interpretation to Exodus 6:9). Moses, the “man (or husband) of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1) as well as the “servant of the Lord,” remains “distant” from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations more than a leader for his generation.
Indeed, Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; instead he dedicates his time to speaking to the Lord in the Tent of Communion, far removed from the encampment (Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89). It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself — and in the midst of the people (Numbers 11:26). Moses’ greatest asset — his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” the Divine will — is also his most profound tragedy, the cause of his distance from the people, his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be re-inspired and re-charged with new challenges and lofty goals if they are to be above petty squabbles and materialistic desires.
The kvetching is not because they really want the leeks and the onions; it is because they don’t know what they want. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, they actually need, as we all need, a mission, a purpose for being. This, however, will have to await a new leader, who may be less a man of God but more a man of the people.
Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat Israel.

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