Thursday, August 2, 2012

Moshe's Failure

An Important Lesson in Education

  Parshat Va'Etchanan

  by Rabbi Avi Billet

 One of the more fascinating narratives in the Torah is the one surrounding the fate of Moshe, the great leader, and his passionate effort to gain entry into the Promised Land. In last week's parsha he seemed to imply that the episode of the spies doomed him to the same fate as the entire generation (Devarim 1:37).

 In this week's parsha, Moshe has a more cryptic explanation when, in the context of a paragraph in which he explains why God took the people out of Egypt to make them His special nation, "He got angry at me [because of] your words, and He swore I would not cross the Jordan, and I would not come into the land that Hashem your God is giving to you as an inheritance." (4:21) No further explanation is given here beyond blaming "your words."

 Why, then, was Moshe barred from entering the land? Is Moshe referring to the spies incident? The rock incident? Something else? Which "words" uttered by the people may have brought upon him the devastating fate that he tries over and over to have reversed?

The Or HaChaim points out that Moshe's reference to "not crossing the Jordan" as well as "not coming to the land" covers his non-entry in life, or in death (to be buried there), respectively. The traditional approach has all of Yaakov's sons' remains being brought to the land for burial. Moshe is excluded even from this. Why could he not even be buried in the land? Because of their words.

 What were their words?

 The Shakh on the Torah suggests that the anger that God wrought on Moshe was at the Golden Calf incident. When God told Moshe to "Go down" (Shmot 32:7) He meant "Go down from your greatness." Perhaps the underlying message is, "What kind of leader leaves his people in such a state that when he is missing for a 40 day period, they not only don't have more patience, but they go to such an extreme that they create a golden image and seemingly serve it?" This is a failure of leadership.

 The Shakh goes on to say that Moshe's response to the people in the rock incident (Bamidbar 20) hardly fits with his words here – "their words" there, complaining for water, could certainly not be viewed as causing his non-entry to the Land.

 Taking Moshe's message home, Ramban provides the most poignant message in his illuminating comment on this verse. He explains Moshe's words as meaning "God commanded me to teach you the commandments, that you will do in the Land when you cross over [the river] to get there. So, take the lesson, because I will be dying in Moab and I will not be able to teach you in the Land. [When you are] there, don't forget what I have taught you. Nor what you saw in Sinai… God was angry with me on account of worry that you will forget the covenant with God." This is why when Moshe repeats the "Ten Statements," he mentions "as God commanded you" (5:12,16) as if to say, "What I am telling you here was not my own words – it was never my words. All of my teachings come from God."

 What then were "their words?" On a simple level, it is likely words of rebellion that were legitimately out of place – which, as the Shakh points out, is likely not the incident with the rock. Does it matter if it was the Golden Calf, the spies, or something else? I think the point is that it's very hard to square Moshe's failure on a single incident. The punishment, as it were, does not fit any single crime.

 On a much deeper level, I think Ramban is suggesting that Moshe is saying, "I was punished because of your words, because I failed you as a teacher. I didn't understand your complaints. I didn't appreciate where you were coming from. I couldn't relate to you on your level. I may have advocated when you complained, but I didn't anticipate your needs in the right way. This lack on my part brought about the moral failures that fill the Torah, and is the reason I will not enter the land in life, and why not even my body will enjoy the benefit of burial in the land."

This is an incredible admission.

 Moshe is teaching every parent and teacher that God gets angry at us – the parents and teachers – on account of the words of those we are meant to teach, guide and inspire. We need to listen, to try hard to understand, and to respond in a way that is direct, pointed, and that helps the student or child overcome the obstacle, move past the challenging question or episode, with more clarity, with proper guidance. We need to provide answers that the children and students can appreciate and understand.

 And, most importantly, we need to be intellectually honest, without evading issues. Students and children can spot hypocrisy in an instant, and they also know when they're not being listened to or when their genuine concerns are misunderstood by those they look to for guidance. There is a big difference between the response elicited by our teaching or rebuke when a child says "I hate you" versus "I don't like what you're saying, but I respect you nonetheless because you respect me."

 Moshe concludes saying, "While I may not have understood you, I hope you will see that my teachings are good. Heed them, don't disregard them, don't forget what I have taught you."

 May we merit to learn from Moshe. Let us succeed in hearing "their words" so God may always be pleased with us in our roles as parents and teachers - horim and morim. And even when they don't like our methods, let us pray that the students and children will be able to see that our teachings are good, even though we, human beings that we are, are not perfect.

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