The shadow of death hovers over Parashat Chukat. (Numbers 19:1-22:1) The parashah begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of a heifer and the necessity for purgation after contact with a dead body. It concludes with the death of Aaron the High Priest and the slaughter by the Israelites of the Bashanites. At its center is the end of a leader's patience with the people he was fated to lead.
Moses' noble vision of the independence and the moral imagination that God has willed for the people-and that they must learn to exercise-has been obliterated by their rude countervision, which leads him to despair of their ability to fulfill the destiny he has striven to help them attain. And so at Kadesh, in a fit of exasperation and loss of faith in the people's worth and the sanctity of his own mission, Moses, the master prophet, pounds on the rock to appease his sullen, misguided critics, thereby betraying his own high vision.
Does this sad episode reflect only a world of ancient myth? In our own contemporary world, do we know anything about high vision forsaken and of a leadership provoked or trapped into denying its own mission?
It seems to me that the dilemma Moses faces and is fazed by at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin is not so remote from our own experience. We have seen a president of the United States profess an ardor to protect the most vulnerable among his people and then agree to "welfare reform," the demolition of a welfare system that, whatever its imperfections, had assured the most vulnerable Americans of at least a modicum of support. We have heard him pronounce a eulogy for "big government" when he surely knows that if federal power were diminished, government by corporate fiat would expand greatly. Has not the president's own high vision succumbed to the countervision of his critics?
And in Israel fifty years after the vision set forth in its declaration of independence, we have seen a prime minister profess commitment to a peace process that, obsessed as he appears to be with his own political insecurity, he has acted time and again to discourage.
Moses, our tradition tells us, emerged from the shadow, braving his shame and God's anger to lead his unruly people forward. Our tradition also tells us that he persevered in leading them within sight of the Promised Land, although himself was debarred from entering it. The damage his leadership had sustained at Kadesh meant that for him there would be no Promised Land. Even so, his name and deeds have lived on after him, scarcely tarnished, a glowing inheritance of countless later generations. Although flawed, he mustered sufficient rehabilitation to be remembered as Moshe Rabbenu, our Teacher Moses.
What legacy will the leaders of our generation leave behind them? They would do well to meditate on the challenge our Teacher Moses offered for his transgression in the wilderness of Zin. Maybe for our leaders, it is not too late.