Sefer Bamidbar opens with the final preparations for the journey from Har Sinai (the physical setting for all of Sefer Vayikra) to the promised land. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik discusses the final preparations in his classic dvar Torah on Behaalotcha (available from Torah.org).
Moshe takes a final census, prepares the people ritually, and constructs and dedicates the Mishkan. Yitro comes to bring Moshe’s family, and Moshe invites him to join Bnei Yisrael. Moshe delays the departure for Pesach and Pesach Sheni. As the sixth aliyah begins, the tone is entirely positive, with Moshe convinced that Bnei Yisrael will shortly be in the promised land.
Suddenly, everything falls apart. First murmuring, then craving, initially for meat. Moshe becomes depressed and asks G-d to remove some of his burdens. G-d has Moshe appoint 70 elders to work with him, and two outside of their number receive revelations that Joshua, not Moshe, will lead the people into the promised land.
From that point on, one could make the case that Moshe faces crises less effectively than earlier in Sefer Bamidbar. Miriam criticizes Moshe for separating himself from his wife and children. Moshe permits leaders from 12 tribes to observe the land and bring back a report. Ten present a highly-prejudiced report and claim that Bnei Yisrael could not cope with the people in the land. Korach, Datan, and Aviram led a revolt against Moshe’s political leadership and the selection of Aharon as Kohen Gadol. While Moshe is able to stop that rebellion, the test that he proposes leads to the death of Korach, 250 leaders of Bnei Yisrael, and their followers. The people are upset at the extent of the loss of life.
Even after a 38-year reprieve, Moshe’s problems continue. When G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock about the lack of water, Moshe strikes the rock with anger and bitterly calls the people rebels instead of telling them that G-d always takes care of them when they ask. At Bilaam’s suggestion, the Midianite women seduce the Israeli men and introduce them to deviant practices. Moshe and Eleazar do not intervene — it is Pinchas, on his own, who take the action that stops a plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 Jews.
Of all the leaders in Jewish history, no others talked directly to G-d, taught so well, and protected our people like Moshe. We call him Moshe Rabbeinu — our greatest teacher and Rabbi. Moshe was the ideal leader of Bnei Yisrael — best suited to be able to talk directly to Pharoah, lead the former slaves, bring them to Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, and take them to a new land where the mitzvot would one day be put into practice in every facet of life.
In 1776, economist Adam Smith argued in “Wealth of Nations” that specialization and trade make the economy more productive than any individual trying to do too many tasks. My arguments about Moshe fits into this model. While Moshe was the ideal leader of the former slaves, he was human, and his abilities had limits. While Moshe was by far the best leader for Bnei Yisrael for 40 years, G-d decided that Yehoshua ben Nun was the best to lead the people into the new land.
What indications are there in Sefer Bamidbar to explain why it was time for a new leader for the new generation? Events in Behaalotecha, Shelach, Korach, Chukat, and Balak/Pinchas provide these hints.
At the incident of the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf), G-d told Moshe that He had given up on Bnei Yisrael, and would destroy them, starting a new people through Moshe. Moshe then used every possible argument to negotiate a new covenant to save the people and earn another chance. After the incident of the 12 representatives returning and giving a bad report on the land (Shelach), G-d paused several times in His conversation with Moshe. Where Moshe earlier took advantage of the pauses to negotiate better terms for the people, in Shelach Moshe stopped with saving their lives. He did not utilize some of the arguments from earlier in the Torah to gain a reprieve on the punishment of 40 years in the wilderness and death to the generation that lacked the faith to follow Moshe and Hashem. Would the arguments of Shemot 32 have worked in Shelach? We cannot know any more than the fact that Moshe did not try.
By the time of Parshat Chukat, Moshe was 119 years old and had been fighting oppressors of the Jews on and off since he was a young man, not to mention grappling with the challenging nature of Bnai Yisrael themselves. Most of us could not have survived what Moshe faced. While our tradition states that Moshe retained his vigor until the night before he died, there are indications that Moshe was becoming less effective as a leader than he had been earlier in the period in the midbar.
I do not mean any disrespect to Moshe with my conclusions. Moshe was unique, the greatest leader of our people — but in the end, he was human, and perhaps no longer the best choice to lead the people on the next step of their journey.
This dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Susan Lowenthal, Shulamith bat Yurik z”l, an extraordinary Judaic artist from Connecticut who passed away on 17 Tammuz of this year after a seven-year battle against cancer. Susan was born in a DP camp in Munich shortly after World War II, came to the United States, worked successfully on Wall Street for a number of years, and then switched to her passion, art.
By Alan Fisher
Alan A. Fisher, a retired economist with a government agency, is the membership chairman of the American Dahlia Society. He produces and shares a weekly compilation of divrei Torah (Potomac Torah Study Center) and davens most often at Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland.