Did Moses Die for Us?

Va'et-hannan By :  Stephen P. Garfinkel Assistant Professor of Bible and Its Interpretation Posted On Jul 31, 2015 / 5775 | Main Commentary

What a magnificent and rich Torah reading we have this week, Parashat Va’et-hannan! It’s as if the Torah wants to compensate the Jewish community for the week gone by, a week during which we commemorated Tishah Be’av, the putative anniversary of so many devastating events that have occurred throughout Jewish history. This week’s “reward” is a reading that incorporates a restatement of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-17) followed almost immediately by the first paragraph of the Shema (6:4-9).

Coincidentally, those two units were originally part of a basic prayer service as attested in the Nash Papyrus, a document possibly as old as the 2nd century BCE—but let’s get back to this week’s Torah reading. The Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) and the Shema are part of Moses’s second “farewell speech,” delivered to the nation not long before his death. However, at the end of Moses’s first “farewell speech,” which appears toward the beginning of the parashah, Moses conveys a very different mood. Given how much has been written and spoken about the two highlight points of the parashah, let’s zoom in on several verses that get much less notice.

Moses tells the people, confessing to them really, that when he charged Joshua to take over in his place, he also pleaded with God to allow him to remain alive and to cross over the Jordan River. He just wanted to see the land that had been the goal of his leadership for the past forty years of wandering. Was that really so much to ask? Evidently it was more than God was willing to grant.

Without equivocating, God immediately displays divine anger with Moses, wouldn’t listen to him, and barks at him the following rebuke (3:27): “That’s enough from you! Don’t speak to Me further about this matter anymore!” However—making a pun on the Hebrew word עבר, “to cross over”—Moses doesn’t accept the blame for God’s being so cross with him. Instead, he implicates the people, shifting the onus of responsibility from himself to them, “God was angry with me (וַיִּתְעַבֵּרbecause of you” (3:26). Moses goes further with his exculpatory comments in the very next chapter (4:21), continuing to blame the Israelites for their being the cause of the prohibition against his entering into Canaan. That isn’t surprising, though, since from the beginning of Deuteronomy (1:37) Moses had already begun to assign the blame to the people for his punishment. What, then, are we to make of the actions and attitude of the great leader Moses?

First, we should realize that all leaders, ancient and modern, are mortal human beings, with the same flaws the rest of us have. We know, too, they have the great abilities that most of us also have, but one cause of their greatness is the balance they hold, or at least the balance they portray, between their strengths and weaknesses. A leader’s downfall begins when that special balance starts to teeter. When Moses could no longer accept his full responsibility or when his own anger clouded his judgment, signs of which surfaced in several incidents even earlier in the Torah, God had to watch carefully and to determine when it would be time to replace even Moses, God’s chosen leader.

As with almost all of Deuteronomy, this parashah entails Moses’s recounting of Israel’s journey. It is told from his perspective, sometimes in contrast to the way narratives about the same events were described in previous books of the Torah. It is, in a sense, Moses’s chance to put forth his version of the past. As such, we are wisely reminded by the Torah that it may be difficult to know the precise details or the larger meaning of a given occurrence (again, whether from the distant past or in the latest social media pronouncements). We need always to understand the context of an event’s description as well as the perspectives of the one telling it. With a careful focus on context, we can even discern a different message in Moses’s accusations against Israel as he blamed them for his punishment.

The verses in which Moses allowed his personal annoyance, frustration, or exhaustion to overtake his acceptance of responsibility can be seen through a very different lens. Rather than stating that Moses’s punishment was their fault, that it was “because of them,” the Torah may have wanted to soften the blow on the eve of Moses’s impending death. Despite the great loss the people would inevitably endure at the death of Moses and his replacement by Joshua, God explained that the nation was about to enter a new stage of their development. They would need a new leader, a new kind of leader. Moses had served them in countless and essential ways over forty years, but their entry into Canaan would bring with it new and different needs. Thus God was saying, Moses’s replacement as their leader was לְמַעַנְכֶם (3:26), it was “for your benefit.” It was for the sake of the nation! With varied degrees of creative interpretation, the other verses of Moses’s blaming the people could equally mean that his punishment would be for their good. As hard as it might have been for Moses to admit it, his time had come.

Thus, even the accusatory sections of this week’s parashah can be read as the reassuring news the Torah wanted to deliver after the pain of Tishah Be’av. Rabbinic tradition expounds the principle (extrapolating from the Babylonian Talmud [BavaBatra 14b] explaining the order of some books in the Tanakh) that “consolation follows destruction.” Thus, after the past three weeks of admonitory haftarot, this week’s haftarah begins seven weeks of consolation with the words, “Be comforted, be comforted, O My people.”

Despite many of the difficulties we have seen recently throughout the world, let us be comforted and hopeful as we look ahead.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).