When Moses is clearly told that he will not enter the Promised Land because of a momentary failure in his ministry of national leadership and service, we might wonder whether Moses is, in the end, a tragic figure. After all, he has labored to bring the people of Israel to the land in which the teachings he has prophesied will become manifest and realized. Yet, Moses is told in this week’s portion that he will die before his teachings will bear their fruit. In Numbers 27:12 we learn that Moses is given the opportunity to see the land but will not enter it because he and his brother Aaron rebelled against God’s command to sanctify God, at a time of communal strife in the wilderness, “through the water, before [the people’s] eyes.”
The failure referred to the story in Numbers 20, in which the people are deeply despondent over the fact that they have no water. Moses’ sister, Miriam the prophet, has died, and consequently the people’s source of water has dried up. The community complains bitterly to Moses and Aaron, wondering what they are doing in the wilderness at all. Moses reaches a crisis of leadership, and God tells him, “Take your staff and bring the community together, you and Aaron, and speak to the rock, before their eyes, and it will yield its waters.” (Numbers 20:8)
God is effectively saying, “Take your staff, the symbol of your authority, and gently bring the people together and then speak to the wall of granite behind which flows the water.” Instead of speaking to the rock as he was directed, Moses unfortunately strikes the wall of rock twice with his staff and says angrily, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) Moses is using his authority to express his anger, and because of that he is told that he will not lead the community into the land.
Moses has been asked to demonstrate the principle of how one confronts the hardness of life represented by the seemingly impenetrable wall of rock that stands before him. The Torah is teaching the possibility that rather than lashing out in anger, one should speak directly to difficulty with the faith that if one does so, the internal waters within will eventually flow. Perhaps the rock is a metaphor for talking through the hardness of our lives in order to discover the water that flows within. Moses misses a profound opportunity to teach the power of this principle to an entire generation, “before their eyes.” As a consequence, Moses cannot enter the land. Is this an appropriate punishment? Perhaps this is not punishment at all.
In our Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t be going into the land, Moses understands that because he will not be going into the land, a successor to his leadership must be found, groomed and ordained. God tells Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him. Stand him up before Elazar the priest and before the entire community and command him before their eyes. And you shall place of your glory upon him so that the entire community of Israel shall listen” (Numbers 27:18-20).
The Torah is careful to require that Moses ordain Joshua in the sight of the entire Jewish people, “before their eyes,” which is the same language used at the incident of the rock. This is a rarely used expression in the Torah, highlighting the connection between what is at the heart of how Moses is to ordain Joshua and what Moses failed to do in the incident of the rock. Whatever Moses failed to achieve at the rock, he now has an opportunity to do in how he ordains Joshua. Rashi asks what it means for Moses to give Joshua some of his glory as he ordains Joshua as the next leader of Israel and concludes that the glory Moses gives to Joshua is the shining light of his own face. In other words, God is telling Moses to let Joshua shine by turning down his own light. Showing the entire people what it means to allow another person to shine by reducing one’s own light is akin to what Moses could have taught the people by speaking to the rock and not striking it. We teach more sometimes by holding back on demonstrating our authority than by using it. We teach more and contribute more to the growth of another by restraining ourselves rather than by imposing ourselves.
Moses’ life, then, is not one of tragedy but that of a man who learns a great lesson through the course of his national mission and ends up teaching that lesson for posterity. No one can expect to see all the fruits of one’s labor, one’s Promised Land, in one’s lifetime. Understanding the wisdom of how one finds, grooms and ordains a successor by turning down one’s own light is inseparable from accepting the mortal reality that one cannot finish everything one has set out to do in one’s life or career. Perhaps those who have difficulty ordaining leadership for the next generation fail to groom their successors out of a fundamental inability to accept their own limitations.
Rabbi David Gedzelman is the executive director of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.