An Imperfect Hero

Moses' fatal flaw is his inability to wean his people from their dependence on him.

Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1

The children of Israel are recalcitrant and undependable lovers who reject their covenantal responsibilities for a piece of meat, a golden calf, a sexy Moabite body. They are children, in fact, infantilized by the slavery of their upbringing and unable to endure the incertitude and ambiguities of freedom.

Against the spiritual immaturity of the Israelites stands Moses. He has the voice of the prophet, confronting evil, yet remains humble. He demands that they understand the Torah they are receiving, and refuses to accept either God’s or the people’s demands that his status be elevated to that of demigod. Yet the Torah is unequivocal — Moses is fatally flawed. He is a wanderer, condemned to die in the desert, forbidden entry to Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) and denied the honor of leading his people to the final homecoming.

The Israelites are addicted to miracles and martial law, to appetite and apostasy. Moses is the benevolent leader who chides and dictates, but cannot liberate his people to stand on their own feet, to be independent of his will. The result is inevitable. The people rebel once again, and in frustration and disappointment Moses finally responds: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Moses hits the rock, water pours out and the people temporarily quench their thirst.

God reacts immediately: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in the eyes of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land.” At the very moment Moses needs to wean the Israelites from their dependence on him and turn them to God and Torah, he credits himself for a quenching miracle.

He is a hero of mythic proportions who can calm an angry God, yet chastise and redirect his people when they panic. He is the ideal leader for the desert, the only one who can give direction and purpose to the wanderings. But he is not the leader for the freedom of homecoming, the one to build a covenantal community in Eretz Israel.

Reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.


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