Friday, July 01, 2011

Another take on Moshe's sin: He did as he was told

Menachem Leibtag persuasivly argues that Moshe did nothing wrong when he stood, with the stick, in front of the nation and engaged the rock.

Citing Ramban, RML points out that Rashi can't be correct when he says that Moshe's sin was striking the rock, when he should have spoken to it. As Ramban asks, why was Moshe told to bring a stick if he wasn't expected to use it? To this RML ads (paraphrased)"Why would it even occur to Moshe that he was supposed to speak to a rock? Rocks don't have ears. They aren't sentient. And the last time, indeed the only time, Moshe ever produced water from a rock, he struck it with a stick. So if Moshe was told to produce water from a stone, and he was told to take a stick, shouldn't it seem obvious that he was expected to strike the rock, just as he had the previous time?"

Those of you familiar with the verses, will ask "Doesn't the Torah quote God as saying 'Speak to the rock?" Yes, but Ramban and RML read that passage differently. They claim those words mean "Speak ABOUT the rock" meaning that Moshe was ordered to go and remind the complaining Israelites that God is good, and powerful, and capable of providing for them. Just as He had given then rock water for 40 years*, he can continue to provide for their needs.

So what did Moshe do wrong? He was commanded to take his stick, gather the crowd, speak about the rock, and then produce water. All of this he did.

RML says the error occurred earlier. When the Israelites complained about water, Moshe and Aaron retreated in fear to the Ohel Moed, and threw themselves on their faces. This RML argues was not the right response. Instead of standing confidently, and proclaiming that the Israelite  grumbling was unfounded because God is great and powerful, the two men fled. This was "the failure to sanctify God's name" for which Moshe and Aaron were later criticized. As RML points out, forty years earlier, at the only other moment when the Israelites demanded water, Moshe and Aaron gave a very different response. Instead of running, they fought back, angrily rebuking the people for daring to test God. As we have seen throughout the book of Numbers, that Moshe, the Moshe who fights back, no longer exists. When the spies challenged his authority, he melted and Caleb had to deliver the response. When Korach brought a rebellion, Moshe fell on his face. Even his sister Miriam found the nerve to challenge his leadership.  The Moshe of Exodus, who faced down Pharaoh and delivered stinging rebukes and glorious defenses of God seems to have disappeared. The men we see in Numbers is meeker, and no longer a champion.

Worse, RML continues, this Moshe of Numbers seems unable or unwilling to face down the people even when he's been expressly told how to do it. At the end of the disputation with Korach, Aaron's stick budded, blossomed and produced almonds. This stick. God tells Moshe in 17:10 is to be put "in front of the ark of the covenant law, and kept as a sign [of God's power, and Moshe's authority] to the rebellious."  A mere two chapters later, we have a rebellion, but instead of going for the almond stick a previously directed, Moshe seems lost. God has to expressly tell him, "Take the stick"** Hed oes as ordered *** but the Msohe of old would not have waited to be told what to do. He would have acted forcefuly  powerfully and immediately.

Concludes RML, Moshe did not sin as an individual. He did as he was told. The problem was that he failed as a leader, or to put it more generously, he revealed himself to be the wrong kind of leader for the Israelites. They still needed someone strong and charismatic, someone who stood up to them. Moshe was no longer that man, and because he was no longer that man, he could no longer be their leader. Removing him from the position was not a punishment, but a demotion, or better yet, a new assignment. He and the Israelite had grown in different directions, and for the good of the people, someone else had to take them onward.
* The Bible records all sorts of Israelite complaints, but never are they heard asking for water. The Rabbis understood this to mean that a magic well, Miriam's well, followed them for forty years, only vanishing after Miriam's death. Textual proof discussed here.

** Note many understand this command to refer to Moshe's own stick. If so, its hard to explain why its refered to as THE stick, and why Moshe takes it "milifnei hashem" Why, asks RML, would Moshe's own stick be there?

*** The fact that the stick he took was intended to be a "sign for the rebellious" explains why Moshe said "Listen you rebels".

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