Friday, July 14, 2017

The transition of power, the greatness of Moses and the undeserved good fortune of the Israelites

By Professor Stephen Schecter

The baton is being passed from one generation to another. We see this first in the numbering of the congregation of Israel by tribes. Now the names of the sons of the original brothers are different from those listed at the outset of the Book of Numbers. We learn at the end of the census the reason for this: of those now numbered not a man was counted who was numbered by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Sinai, for not one of those men were to enter the Promised Land, save Joshua and Caleb.

Only, in recounting the census the Torah lingers a bit when the names of those who strove against Moses and the Lord were mentioned: Datan and Aviram in the incident of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron; Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who offered strange fire before the Lord and paid for their transgression with their lives. In recalling these two incidents the Torah prepares us for what follows this census, namely the passing of the baton from Moses to Joshua.

No sooner is the census finished than the Lord turns to Moses and tells him he is to go up to the top of a mountain of Avarim and behold the same land which he is not to enter. For once you have beheld the land, God tells him, you shall die, only the Lord puts it more poetically: you shall be gathered unto your people as Aaron your brother was gathered. And the reason, God reminds him, is your rebellion as well, when you disobeyed Me in the wilderness of Zin as the children of Israel disobeyed Me in Paran outside the wilderness of Sinai.

Sinai and Zin. One transgression parallels another. The people sin and their sin eventually contaminates their leaders. Eventually everyone gets swallowed up when folly runs amok. The usual tendency is to blame the leaders and think that all one needs to do to make things better is replace them with better and more principled ones. Contemporary Israel is notorious for this kind of thinking, reinforced by an electoral system which gives party leaders more power and less accountability than that of other democracies which aim to produce governing majorities. But all modern democracies fall prey to this illusion, misunderstanding the way democracies function. For democracies are not prescriptions for utopias, but forms of political organization where power is split at the top between government and opposition, enabling the people to be included, for better and worse, in the political process. In which case the lesson is as old as the Hebrew Bible: the people ultimately get what they deserve. And if they are lucky, as the Hebrews were with Moses, sometimes a lot better than they deserve.

One might have thought Moses felt done in by this punishment for a transgression provoked by the band of miscreants he had led so faithfully all these years. One might have understood a reaction on his part that bespoke hurt and rejection when God told him his journey was over without being allowed to enter the Promised Land. How much had he not sacrificed and overcome to lead the Israelites home! How unfair, it strikes us thousands of years later, that for such a small peccadillo he was prevented from putting his foot on the soil that was more than simply clods of earth! And yet, this most amazing of men and most steadfast of leaders simply turns his mind to the next task at hand. If I am not to lead the people, he tells the Lord, we had better see to it that someone fit does. How moving the scene, which the Torah conveys in that most simple speech of Moses to the Master of the Universe: Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who may go out before them and who may come in before them, who may lead them out and who may lead them in, that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.

Nothing more than these simple words is spoken, but they are enough to move the reader to tears of admiration and gratitude even now. One imagines the scene. Perhaps Moses rubs the dirt with his toe. Perhaps he sits on a rock and surveys the landscape, reminiscing his past, sifting his trials, and letting it all go. One pictures him smiling at the hurt he so keenly feels and then at the future he so vividly imagines. Well, then, he may say to himself, I’d better get on with the job, for these people left to themselves will never even cross the Jordan. And so he raises himself from the rock on which he is seated and turns to the Lord of Hosts with his humble request and reminder. And the Lord responds right away with the name He had had in mind. Take Joshua, the son of Nun, lay your hands upon him, set him before the priest Eleazar, and before the entire congregation transfer your honor to him. And Moses, the Torah says, did as the Lord commanded, but the reader would add: and as he suggested.

For Moses, we deduce, it is business as usual. And in case we had any doubts, as soon as the question of leadership is settled the story picks up with business as usual indeed. Tell the children of Israel, the Lord tells Moses, to bring me My sacrifices, the right ones at the right times. The Lord goes into details, which Moses will dutifully convey, as he will convey much more before he finally climbs the mountain to be gathered unto his people. But we shall have to read the rest of the Book of Numbers and the entire Book of Deuteronomy before that happens.

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