Friday, October 24, 2008

Why Was Moshe Punished?

One of the most fascinating things about reading Rambam is that no matter how many times I revisit an idea of his, invariably, I get a new insight or realize that I missed something seminal the last time I looked at it. On Chag, I was learning the Eight Chapters, Rambam’s introduction to Massechet Avot, with young Chaverim and we read Rambam’s explanation of Moshe’s sin that prevented him from entering the land of Israel. It is at the end of chapter 4 and here is the Hebrew (R. Shmuel Tibon translation) with my translation interspersed with comments.

After a lengthy discussion of the Golden Mean, Rambam addresses the problem of Moshe’s sin –

ואתה יודע, שאדון הראשונים והאחרונים, משה רבנו, כבר אמר עליו השם יתברך:
יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל (במדבר כ', י"ב); על אשר מריתם את פי למי מריבה (שם, כ"ד); על אשר לא קדשתם אותי (דברים ל"ב, נ"א).
כל זה! וחטאו, עליו השלום, הוא שנטה לצד אחד הקצוות במעלה אחת שבמעלות המידות, והיא הסבלנות! כאשר נטה לצד הרגזנות, באומרו: שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ', י'). דקדק
עמו הקדוש ברוך הוא: שיהיה אדם כמוהו מתרגז לעיני עדת ישראל, במקום שאין
הרגזנות ראויה?! וכגון זה באדם שכמותו חילול השם הוא, שכן תנועותיו כולן ודיברותיו,
הכל למדים מהם וחומדים בהם האושר בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא. ואיך ייראו בו
הרגזנות, והיא ממעשי הרעים כמו שבארנו, ואינה נובעת אלא מתכונה רעה שבנפש.

You already know that the Master of earlier and later generations, Moshe Rabbeinu, HKBH said to him-

Inasmuch as you did not make them believe in Me [see R. Sa’adyah Gaon and below] to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel [you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them]. (Bamidbar 20:12)

[Let Aharon be gathered to his kin, for he shall not come into the land that I have given to the children of Israel,] for you both have rebelled against My word at the Waters of Merivah. (Bamidbar 20:24)

…For you have not sanctified Me… (Devarim 32:51)

All this! [Such punishment for so little!] His [Moshe’s] sin was that he went to one of the extremes in behavior, namely he had a deficiency in the virtue of tolerance. [Rambam explained earlier in the chapter, that a perfect human being should be balanced, not too tolerant or too intolerant.] As he crossed over into anger [intolerance] saying [to the people] “listen you rebels!” God was upset with him. A person of his caliber, to whom all eyes are directed to learn from him the ways that lead to happiness in this world and the world to come, should become angry in a situation that does not warrant it? That is a Chilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]! How can he let them see unwarranted anger, a bad act that stems from a deficiency in his character?

Rambam addresses the first verse that criticizes Moshe for being a bad role model. He showed that he had not perfected one of his character traits. Moshe, who was seen as the paradigm of a perfect human being, who had reached the level of prophecy no other human had until then nor will another reach in the future, could not be seen as having a moral deficiency. Rambam in MN 2:40 explains that what makes the Torah divine as opposed to other laws that are promulgated by humans, is that it teaches not only about personal and societal behavior but also truths that helps a man understand his own existence and the world he lives in. That is an internal condition, a value judgment of the content of the torah. There is however, an additional external condition that relates to the person who teaches it and gives it to us.

The question which now remains to be settled is this: Is the person who proclaimed these laws the same perfect man that received them by prophetic inspiration, or a plagiarist, who has stolen these ideas from a true prophet? In order to be enabled to answer this question, we must examine the merits of the person, obtain an accurate account of his actions, and consider his character.”

Seeing a deficiency in Moshe’s character casts a doubt on the divinity of the Torah and thus desecrates God’s name. That is the meaning of Bamidbar 20:12 and why I chose to translate according to R. Sa’adyah, “Inasmuch as you did not make them believe in Me”, which I believe is Rambam’s translation of this verse.

Rambam now addresses the other statement in Bamidbar 20:24 where Moshe and Aharon are accused of rebelling against God.

אבל אמרו בעניין הזה: "מריתם את פי" אינו אלא כמו שאבאר. וזה, שלא היה
מדבר עם עמי הארץ, ולא עם מי שאין להם מעלה, אבל עם קהל שהקטנה שבנשיהם
הייתה כיחזקאל בן בוזי, כמו שזכרו החכמים. וכל מה שיאמר או יעשה, יבחנוהו.
וכאשר ראוהו שהתרגז, אמרו
ודאי אין הוא, עליו השלום, מאלה שיש להם פחיתות מידה! ולולא ידע שהאלוהים
התאנף בנו על דרישת המים, ושאנחנו הכעסנוהו, יתברך, לא היה מתרגז
ואנו לא מצאנו לשם יתברך שהתרגז או שכעס בדברו אליו בעניין הזה; אלא אמר: קח את המטה והקהל את העדה, וגומר (במדבר כ', ח').

The explanation of the verse, “you have rebelled against My word” is as follows. Moshe was not talking to ignorant people or to a lowly caste. He was talking to a people that the least among their women was like [the prophet] Yechezkel ben Buzi according to the rabbis! [Rambam is referring to the Rabbis who note that a lowly woman slave apprehended at Kryat Yam Suf as much as Yechezkel in all his prophecies. In other words, the people were quite sophisticated theologians by now, having experienced Yam Suf and Sinai]. They therefore looked with a critical eye on everything Moshe did. When they saw him get angry, they assumed that he, a perfect human being, was transmitting to them God’s position. Had he not known that God was wrathful at us for asking for water, that we angered Him, he would not have gotten angry with us. We, however, do not find anywhere that God was angry [for our asking for water]. God only said, “Take the staff and gather the assembly…”

Moshe and Aharon “rebelled against God’s word” by teaching the people an erroneous understanding of Bitachon – reliance on God. Bitachon does not mean that when faced with a problem, one relies on God and does nothing. When there is no water one should do all that is humanly possible to resolve the crisis. Approaching Moshe and asking him to act was the correct thing to do. In fact, God told Moshe to act by taking the staff and finding the proper rock that would be a source of water for them.

Putting the story in context, the people who saw Moshe as the perfect human being he was had two choices when confronted by his actions. If they saw his anger as a moral deficiency, it jeopardized their acceptance of the torah as divine. On the other hand, if they idolized him and saw him as infallible, they learned a wrong concept of what it means to trust and rely on God. The punishment was therefore commensurate and necessary to rectify these two possible misconceptions. That is how I understand the verse – (Devarim 3:26)

וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם, וְלֹא
שָׁמַע אֵלָי.

26 But the LORD was wrathful with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me.

When Moshe asked that he be allowed to enter the land, it was refused for the sake of the people. An important lesson had to be taught about the divinity of the Torah and the meaning of trusting God.

Rambam ends this explanation very appropriately.

והנה יצאנו מעניין השער, אבל היתרנו ספק מספקי התורה, שנאמרו בו דברים
רבים ונשאל פעמים רבות: "איזה חטא חטא?" וערוך מה שאמרנו אנחנו מול מה
שנאמר בה. והאמת תעשה דרכה

We digressed from the subject discussed but we gained an answer to one of the questions that arise in the Torah and to which many words were addressed. It was asked many times, “what was their sin?” Compare what we said to what was already said about this and the truth will show the way.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. A person of his caliber, to whom all eyes are directed to learn from him the ways that lead to happiness in this world and the world to come, should become angry in a situation that does not warrant it?
    The rambam seems to also say that "the happiness in the world to come" is on this world and can be taught and learned!