The story of the Jewish people under the leadership of Moses is one of triumph and disaster. The triumph we already tasted as we read the book of Exodus / Shemot. We taste it in our matza, freedom from Egypt. We taste it on Shavuot, the experience at Mount Sinai. We simulate it in our sukkot, the clouds of G-d’s glory that enveloped us in the wilderness. As in a beautiful romance, the Jewish people, the bride, leaves the security of the fleshpots of Egyptfor the insecure freedom of the Sinai wilderness, where there is no food or water. The groom, G-d, organizes a magnificent wedding ceremony at Mount Sinaiand then together they build a home, the mishkan, where G-d’s Presence dwells among the Jewish people.
The disaster is contained in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar that we begin this week. Who does not sin in the book of Bamidbar? The entire generation of the exodus sins, believing the spies that the landof Israelis too difficult for them to conquer. On being condemned to forty years in the wilderness, they defy G-d again, this time by trying to conquer the land on their own. Later, the mood of rebellion spreads to Moses’ own tribe, as Korach vies for the leadership of the people. Miriam is punished with leprosy for speaking ill of Moses. Even Moses himself sins by hitting the rock, thus disqualifying himself from leading the Jewish people into the Promised Land.
Where do we most see Moses’ greatness, in the midst of triumph or in the midst of disaster? In the book of Shemot, everything seems a done deal. Moses acts as G-d’s mouthpiece and everything goes to plan (apart from the sin of the golden calf). There is little or no space for Moses to show us his worth. In Bamidbar, in the midst of disaster, only then is Moses’ mettle tested, only then do we see his indomitable spirit shine through. I will give you two examples:
The first comes at the hardest moment for the Jewish people, when all the hopes of the generation of the exodus are dashed. They will not enter the land, only their children will taste the fruits of the Promised Land. At that very moment, Moses chooses to teach them the following:
When you come to your homeland that I am giving you, you will be presenting fire offerings to G-d…. (Bamidbar 15:2-3)
In the midst of the pain and the disappointment, Moshe demonstrates the utmost courage, He gets up and starts teaching them the laws that they will need to know when they enter the land. There is still hope, the next generation will enter the land and they have forty years to prepare themselves. The show must go on.
The second comes at the hardest moment for Moses himself, when he is told that he is about to die. The Torah tells it so eloquently:
G-d spoke to Moses, saying, “Take revenge for the Israelites against the Midianites. Then you shall die and be gathered to your people.” Moses spoke to the people, saying,
“Detach men for armed service against Midian…” (Bamidbar 31:1-3)
At the moment of complete personal disaster, when he hears of his own imminent death, Moses does not flinch. Although his death will only come after the Midianite war, Moses does not delay the execution of G-d’s command for even one second.
Moses displays true courage, true to his principles even under the most extreme duress. He also shows true leadership, never letting the people lose hope. There is a lot to learn from this book of Bamidbar, this book of disaster.