Moses Stays God’s Wrath … Again!

(Torah Commentary: Shelach Lecha)

In the second year of their journey from Egypt, God instructs Moses to send twelve scouts, one from each of the twelve Israelite tribes, to spy on the Promised Land (Numbers 13 ff). Moses requests that the spies bring back a detailed report of the land they plan to invade and conquer.

The spies return and tell Moses, essentially, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the land is wonderful. It is rich and fertile; it “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). To prove their point, the spies return with a cluster of grapes so rich and lush that it took two men to bear the pole to which the grapes were attached (Numbers 13:23). To this day, two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes is the official seal of Israel’s Ministry of tourism.

The bad news, according to ten of the twelve scouts, is that the land is unconquerable. The people are “giants” and we will seem to them “like grasshoppers” (Numbers 14:33).

Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, disagree.

They contend that God has promised us this land, and we need to have the faith and courage to do our part and carry out God’s plan.

Nevertheless, the naysayers rail against Moses for ‘rescuing’ them from Egypt only to die out in the wilderness. “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt. Let us head back to Egypt (Numbers 14:3-4).”

As when the Israelites made the golden calf, God is angry enough at the people’s lack of faith to destroy them. But once again, Moses stands between the people and God’s anger.

Using the same argument as he did when the Israelites made the golden calf (Exodus, 32:11-14), Moses, says: “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land…If then You slay this people to a man the nations who have heard Your fame will say, It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:13-16).

Moses’ appeal to God’s concern for the divine reputation is an example of biblical humor that misleads some into labeling God as a vain and self-absorbed deity. But God could not care less what either the Egyptians or other nations think. The intent is to demonstrate the sacred partnership between God and Moses.

Even though God promises to glorify Moses with a new and improved nation, Moses declines.

Those times when he restrains God’s wrath are Moses’ finest hours.

We refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our rabbi. When our congregants are recalcitrant and seem unappreciative of our efforts, we can imagine how attractive an offer from the Eternal One to replace them with a new and more receptive community would be.

But Moses will not have it. This is Your people, Moses insists, whom You freed from the land of Egypt. You cannot destroy them.

The crucial message of this incident⎯as with the golden calf–is that Moses and God are partners. When God seemed ready to give up on the people, Moses offered encouragement, perspective and hope. When Moses runs out of faith as he did in last week’s Torah portion, God strengthens him.

I hope that it is that way with us. When life is most difficult, I hope we hear a voice within⎯I call it God⎯that urges us to continue. It is a voice imploring us to believe in ourselves and to believe that our lives have purpose.

Like our Eternal Covenant I believe the relationship is reciprocal.

Through our god-like acts of compassion and sharing, we inspire God’s compassion just as Moses had done.


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Go As Hard As You Can for As Long As You Can (Quick Comment, Parashat Va-ethanan)

ואתחנן”…And he (Moses) pleaded (Deuteronomy 3:23).

The word appears only once in the Bible and refers to Moses final plea — (after already having been told, “No!) that God allow him to enter the Promised Land. This time God answers sharply and tells Moses effectively, The answer remains “No!” And don’t bring this up again!

What does this teach us?

We all have dreams that will remain unfulfilled. No matter who we are there will always be something we wish we could have done that we did not!

It is as though God tells us what a soccer coach says to his starting players: “Go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and I’ll know–not you–when it’s time to take you out of the game!”

Is that REALLY the way God works? I do not know for sure. None of us does.

But I believe

 I believe that a single, good and caring God wants to take responsibility to combat the injustice, hunger, homelessness, violence, disease and environmental neglect that plague our world.

Am I sure of this? No, I am not.

But I do know that if we act כאלו “as if” there is a God who wants us to do these things, we would have a much better world than we have now.

 Moses, the “servant of the Eternal One” (Deuteronomy 34:5) is the Torah’s foremost example of one who lived as God wished. Despite Moses, pleadings, God took him “out of the game” before he was ready. We, like Moses, should “go as hard as we can for as long as we can” to make the world better. But we should realize that God may decide at any time to take us “out of the game.”

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.