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The Lessons of Moses

  • The Lessons of Moses

    Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

The Eternal One said to Moses, "Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was. For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water." . . . Moses spoke to the Eternal, saying, "Let the Eternal One, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers 27:12-17)

D'var Torah

As we have followed Moses's journey through the wilderness, just as the Israelites followed him, we have seen him grow to a mature and commendable leader. From his beginnings as a young man, passionate and impulsive enough to slay the Egyptian taskmaster found beating an Israelite, he has grown to become a strong-willed yet compassionate leader, one who rose to the nearly impossible task of balancing God's demands with the reality that he and the Israelites faced on their treacherous journey.

Clearly, as with all leaders, Moses has his faults. At various times he is impatient, scornful of his followers, and unsure how to address and support the community. And, at this moment, in Parashat Pinchas, these and other faults can become Moses's downfall. And anyone can understand his disappointment: despite all the good that he has accomplished and the fortitude he has shown, Moses's dream of leading the people to the Promised Land will not be realized.

In Numbers 27:12-14 Moses is asked to ascend to the highest point in order to view the Land of Israel — the land that God has given to the Israelites. Finally, the end seems within reach: the place to which Moses has been struggling to arrive, the figurative "pot of gold" at the end of the rainbow to which Moses has been pushing and prodding his people, is suddenly visible to him. And yet, as God explains, Moses is denied entry. Though Moses learns earlier that his transgression in Zin will prevent him from accompanying his people into the Land of Israel, he nonetheless has feelings about it. And he must confront them as he stands— literally — face to face with the mythical land he has been traveling toward for so long, knowing that it is forever out of his reach.

All of us have personal and public goals for which we strive. Living in a results-oriented era, we are often fixated on the quantitative — and sometimes qualitative — end product that we hope to create, achieve, or sometimes consume. Working with college students, I see this perpetual "eyes-on-the-prize" mentality constantly reinforced. Students acquire this orientation early, as they consider what classes to take and which activities to join during their high school years to better prepare them for entrance to an elite college. Then they cogitate over what major to select and which internships to accept in order to better position themselves for the best job prospects. The cycle continues as they become young adults who enter the workforce looking for the perfect job. And in their personal lives, they search for the perfect mate and the best place to live. Perhaps they continue their studies, competing for the most prestigious graduate program, and so on.

Most of us, in some shape or form, are in pursuit of something better. The steps taken seem calculated to give us leverage for the next life phase, but what are we ultimately preparing for? What do we have to achieve in order to be satisfied with our accomplishments? In Pinchas, Moses teaches us to focus less on the end goal and more on how our character is shaped and changed by our efforts to do our best.

Take a moment to think about Moses's own evolution as a leader. What is he like when first given the responsibility by God to lead his people on this journey? What is he like at the end of this journey, facing his own mortality and the steps — and missteps — he's taken along the way?

This portion offers some important lessons not only in telling us once again that Moses will not enter the Land of Israel, but also in showing us his reaction to this news. In D'varim, when recounting his reaction to learning that he would not enter the Promised Land, Moses blames the Israelites for God's decision to prevent him — as well as some community elders who perish in the wilderness — from entering the Promised Land:

The Eternal heard your loud complaint and, becoming angry, vowed: Not one of the men [counted in the census], this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers. . . . Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either. (Deuteronomy 1:34-37)

One can imagine the frustration and disappointment that must have fueled his response: often our instinct is to blame others when things go wrong. But ultimately, Moses is able to take responsibility for his transgressions on his own shoulders. In so doing, he comes to terms with the impact that his behavior has on the community as a consequence of his leadership; he accepts the importance of placing the needs of the community above his own personal fulfillment.

Moses demonstrates how attuned he has become to the needs of the Israelites by responding to God's decree not with incredulity or anger, but by voicing his concern about the future of the Israelite people. Who will lead them when he is gone? Moses shares his hope that future leadership will "go out before them and come in before them." Here, Moses imparts wisdom gained through his experiences. The Israelites' leader must become a public figure who is prepared not only to march forward toward some end goal, but also to connect the people's past with their future; he must be able to look back to see where they have come from while ensuring that they are headed in the right direction.

By the Way

  • When you have seen it, you also will be gathered unto your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered . (27:13) From here we see that Moses longed for the same death as Aaron (Rashi). Why specifically the death of Aaron? And what is the meaning of the words "you also"? The explanation is in accordance with what our Sages tell us: "Whoever leaves a son like him, it is as if he did not die," because the father has a part in the commandments and good deeds of his son. Aaron merited this, because his son Eleazar was appointed as the High Priest already in Aaron's life, whereas Moses did not merit having his sons succeed him. Therefore, God told him, "you will be gathered to your people"-when you die, the entire people will be orphaned, for all are your children. (Ketav Sofer, quoted in Torah Gems, vol. 2, comp. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992], p. 142)
  • Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation . . . . People generally believe that as the generations have declined, they are able to survive with a lesser caliber of leaders as well, but the opposite is the case: the lesser the generation, the greater the leaders it needs. This is the same as the rule with ill people, for the sicker a person, the bigger a doctor he needs. (Hidushei Ha-rim, quoted in Torah Gems, ibid., p. 143)
  • I do not pretend to understand the mystery of human transformation, the moment when the response of a man to the world about him throws upon his mind a new and wondrous light concerning the nature of our species and binds him to a vision of the future to which he gives over his life. . . . In the person of Moses was developed the paradigm of the Israelite prophet, the individual through whom God speaks to and acts upon man. (Chaim Potok, Wanderings [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978], pp. 64, 82)

Your Guide

  1. What can we learn from Moses about how to accept defeat or loss? Does this parashah make you think differently about your own goals and how you define success? What value can be found in recognizing that Moses's own faults ultimately held him back from reaching the final goal? What does Moses's question to God about the future welfare and leadership of the Israelites teach us about looking at the ongoing, enduring goals of our people versus personal growth and achievement?

  2. What legacy did Moses leave to the Israelites? How does Parashat Pinchas provide us with a glimpse into Moses's thoughts and concerns about his legacy? Why did he ask God to provide a leader that "shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd"?

  3. How is Moses's life a "paradigm" for us? If Moses served as a mouthpiece for God, in what ways can we also be mouthpieces — for God, for good, for Torah?

Lisa David is the associate director of URJ's Camp Harlam.

Reference Materials: 

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568