Moses and the Code of the Samurai

Va'et-hannan By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Aug 4, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

The code of the samurai is strict. A warrior who fails his lord is expected to perform seppuku, a ritual suicide better known outside Japan as hara-kiri. His death is atonement for the dishonor that his failure has caused. In modern Japan, this ultimate sacrifice is rarely offered, but personal accountability for failure remains a virtue. However, in many cases, the direction in which responsibility flows is reversed: a superior will accept punishment because of the misdeeds of a subordinate.

In this week’s parashah, Moses is about to begin a long restatement and explanation of the Torah. But first, he reviews his own career, and dwells on a failure that he had to pay for:

“Let me, I pray cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.” (Deuteronomy 3:25-26; this is the second time in Deuteronomy Moses makes a similar statement; see also 1:37 and 4:21) 

In other words, the nation sinned, and Moses was held responsible. What was the sin? Judging from the context of what Moses said, it was the mission of scouts, many years before, that led to their bringing back a bad report of the Promised Land (Numbers 13). The nature of the sin can also be inferred from the nature of the punishment. God was saying to Moses, in effect, that because he encouraged or allowed the scouts to cross the Jordan and explore the land in an improper way, Moses himself must suffer by not being allowed to cross that same Jordan.

Yet the Bible also provides a different explanation of why Moses was not to enter Canaan: When he and Aaron had struck a rock to draw water from it, God proclaimed that they would not lead Israel into the Promised Land, because they had not sanctified God before the people (Numbers 20:12). In other words, Moses himself had brought dishonor upon God.

Which is it? Was Moses punished for something he did, or for something his followers did and he failed to prevent? The Torah does not give a single coherent answer, but a later book of the Bible provides a possible resolution:

They provoked wrath at the waters of Merivah and Moses suffered on their account because they rebelled against Him and he spoke harshly (Psalm 106:32).

According to the psalm, Moses was punished for both reasons: for the Israelites’ rebellion after the water incident, and for his harsh reaction to them when they demanded water.

The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1800’s), in his Biblical commentary Ha-amek Davar, interprets Moses’s statement in our parashah in quite a different way. He quotes a midrashwhich understands the verse “God was angry with me because of you” to be “God was angry at me for your good.” The Netziv refers here to an entirely different incident from those mentioned until now: the Israelites had sinned with the Moabite women and worshiped their idols at a place called Pe’or (Numbers 25). Later, Moses was buried near that site. This interpretation links these facts and concludes that in death Moses had to remain on the far side of the Jordan in order to atone for the sin his people had committed there.

It might surprise a Jewish reader to learn that in death a person can atone for the sins of someone else. Yet this idea does appear in Jewish tradition, especially in the case of a tzaddik, of whom Moses is the original and foremost example. What makes Moses different from the Christian conception of Christ is not only that Moses was fully and only human but also that he did not die for the purpose of atoning for the sins of his people. Rather, he was subject to death, as are all people, and God structured the end of Moses’ earthly existence in order to emphasize Moses’ responsibility for his own actions and those of his nation.

Jewish law assesses responsibility at every level of organization and society. Those at the top bear a particular burden. A judge whose erroneous decision leads to financial loss by a litigant may be personally responsible for making up the loss. A priest or other leader who sins even unwittingly has brought blame on the nation and must bring a sacrifice.

Although Judaism does not encourage a samurai culture, Jewish history and practice does emphasize in the strongest terms the necessity for watchfulness to prevent mistakes – one’s own, and those of others. The more far-reaching the consequences of one’s sins — whether of omission or commission – the greater the penalty. In the Torah, Moses is elevated to a level of reverence not equaled by any other person. Yet he is also held to an especially high standard of conduct and judgment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lewis Warshauer

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Warshauer’s commentary on Parashat Va-ethannan have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.