Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moshe's Teachable Moment – Commitment to a Long Term Goal

Parshat Shlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Every time we consider a conversation between God and Moshe, the absurdity of the concept of Moshe "teaching" God something becomes apparent.

There is no question that God exhibits a sense of concern for His name. He does not like when people disgrace His name, misrepresent Him, or behave in a manner that is ungodly. There are a number of times in the Torah when the people act so poorly and with such disregard for God, His kindness, and all the things He has done for them, one wonders how their heads concoct some of the shenanigans and complaints they come up with and act upon.

But the strangest part is not as much when Moshe comes to their defense. He is, after all, their shepherd. It is, after all, his job to defend and protect them. The difficulty is that his logical arguments on their behalf seem so obvious. One wonders why he needed to tell them to God. And why God, seemingly, did not come up with them on His own.

The whole premise of this suggestion is heretical. If God is the Almighty, the all-seeing and the all-knowing, then God knows the past and the future. Nothing is hidden from Him. Rabbi Akiva says in Avot chapter 3, "Everything is foreseen, but free will is given." Humans have free will, but only God knows what will happen.

This is why the middle of Bamidbar chapter 14 is so confusing. It really looks like Moshe is playing the role of the psychologist and chief advisor to God. "Moshe replied to God, 'And what will happen when the Egyptians hear about it? You have brought this nation out from among them with Your great power! And what if they tell the people who live in this land? They have heard that You, God, have been with this nation [Israel]. You, God, have revealed Yourself to them face to face, and Your cloud stands over them. You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night. Now you want to kill this [entire] nation like a single man! The nations who hear this news about You will say that 'God was not able to bring this nation to the land that He swore to them, so He slaughtered them in the desert.' Now, O God, is the time for You to exercise even more restraint'…" (14:13-17)

Rashi says Moshe was suggesting everyone will think God had the power over the Egyptians, but He could not defeat the Canaanites.

Ramban and others focus on the perspective that others will perceive that God could only defeat Egyptian gods but was no match for Canaanite gods.

I would like to suggest that Moshe is not teaching God a lesson, or causing God to consider a different perspective. God is well aware of all the permutations and possibilities of how Man thinks. Moshe, who grew up in the house of Pharaoh, is well aware of the Egyptian mindset. His prayer comes on account of his personal lament over the folly of trying to pick up the pieces after God decimates the Israelite nation.

This is not about God. This is about Moshe.

When a person dedicates one's life to a project, with a very clear goal, the thing that keeps the person going is that goal, and the need to see it through to the end. These people, obstinate and stiff-necked and difficult as they may be, are Moshe's people. He loves them and cares for them.

This God, Who chose Moshe, has the most incredible reputation, and inspires awe and fear among nations. In Moshe's mind's eye, there is no sense in working for a God whose reputation has been diminished.

Moshe is saying, "I know how the Egyptians think. I know what they'll say – about You and about us. And I don't want any part of that! My job was to take care of these people, and once they are all dead my job will end."

This is the ultimate lesson in what it takes to be committed to a cause, and what it takes to stand for your principles. God doesn't change His mind because Moshe convinced Him to. God "changed His mind" because He wasn't ready for Moshe to hang up his gloves forever.

Moshe could not accept the notion that a new world would be created when he saw the beauty, strength, power and possibility that existed in the one he knew. And he could not bear the thought that Egypt might have the last laugh, were the Israelites to be destroyed. His appeal to God, therefore, was not about saving face for God, as much as it was to allow his life to continue to have a purpose – to bring his people closer to the promised land.

God's possible destruction of that goal, which would either affect Moshe's life directly, or indirectly through the media channels of the day which would criticize God, were enough to warrant Moshe's objection. Moshe's objection was not to convince God to behave otherwise, as much as it was to show Moshe's dedication to the people and his readiness to lead them through thick and thin – even 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

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