One May Never Despair of a Fellow Jew

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

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In memory of Alice Stone, Ada Bat Avram, A"H, 
beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother 
whose Yarzheit is 2 Tammuz.
Dedicated by, Ellen & Stanley Stone, 
Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline, Zack & Yael, Allie, 
Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley, Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.
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Adapted by Immanuel Mayer

Translated by Kaeren Fish

Moshe’s Reaction: Falling on his Face to the Ground

            Much has been written about Moshe’s sin at Mei Meriva. Some scholars have proposed that the essence of his sin was the striking of the rock, either the striking itself or the number of times; others have explained that the problem was in what Moshe and Aharon said: “Hear now, rebels” and “Shall we bring forth….”

            We have already proposed a different explanation of the sin. The background to the story of Mei Meriva is Bnei Yisrael’s demand for water. Let us review the verses:

Then Bnei Yisrael – the whole congregation – came to the wilderness of Tzin, in the first month, and the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. And the people quarrelled with Moshe and spoke saying, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is not a place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink.” And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell upon their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. (Bamidbar 20:1-6)

Moshe and Aharon hear Bnei Yisrael’s complaint and head for the Tent of Meeting. There they fall upon their faces, and from there events lead to the striking of the rock. It may be that the last verse cited above is the essence of the sin: Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, failed to exercise proper leadership in this instance. Instead of addressing the challenge, he falls upon his face, in a gesture of helplessness and despair.

This is not the first time that Moshe has fallen on his face instead of carrying out the responsibility of leadership required at the time. At Kivrot Ha-Ta’ava, Moshe similarly appears to despair of his flock:

And Moshe said to the Lord, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favour in Your sight, that You lay the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nursing father carries the sucking child,’ to the land which You have sworn to their fathers’? Whence should I have meat to give to all this people? For they weep to me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray You, out of hand, if I have found favor in Your sight, and let me not see my own wretchedness.” (Bamidbar 11:11-15)

After the sin of the spies, as well, Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces, at a loss as to how to deal with the spies’ report and the people’s response:

And all of Bnei Yisrael murmured against Moshe and Aharon, and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! And why has the Lord brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us appoint a chief and let us return to Egypt.” Then Moshe and Aharon fell upon their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of Bnei Yisrael. (Bamidbar 14:2-5)

            Mei Meriva is the third instance of Moshe being in a situation that calls for a particular response. The same Moshe – the unquestioned leader who, in response to the golden calf, unhesitatingly cries out, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come to me!” – is unable to cope with a situation in which his leadership is undermined. This is the third time that this has happened, and – following the principle of a behavior that recurs three times – his fate is sealed.

The punishment he receives is only natural. If Moshe fails to exercise leadership, then he does not have the right to enter the land and lead Am Yisrael in its conquest and settlement.

The Role of a Shepherd

The midrash describes an exchange between God and Moshe. In this dialogue, God offers Moshe the opportunity to enter the land – but not as the nation’s leader. Yehoshua, his disciple, will lead Am Yisrael to the land flowing with milk and honey, and Moshe can enter too, under Yehoshua’s leadership.

According to this midrash, it is clear that the problem is not Moshe actually entering the land, but rather his entry as leader of the nation. Moshe does not accept God’s offer, for he fears that he will feel the tiniest twinge of jealousy.

It is easy to understand Moshe’s behavior in our parasha. After trials and tribulations without number, in a task that knows no bounds and has no limits, his flock stumble and sin, again and again. Chazal compare Moshe to the good friend of a king, who tries to placate the king concerning the activities of the prince. After repeated misbehavior by the prince, the king’s friend gives up in despair, and makes no further effort to placate the king.

Although this response is entirely understandable, the Torah teaches a lesson: this sort of response is unacceptable in a leader and is punishable by God. No matter how grave the actions of the people, no matter how hopeless things look, a shepherd’s job is to continue nurturing and caring for his flock.

Yirmiyahu and Hoshea

There are other occasions in history when leaders were inclined to abandon the people – or at least the weaker elements of society – and in every instance God’s response was not long in coming. A good example is the prophet Hoshea. Hoshea, too, wanted to give up his role as God’s prophet, after witnessing the nation’s behavior. God responds with a command:

When the Lord first spoke with Hoshea, the Lord said to Hoshea, “Go take to you a wife of harlotry, and children of harlotry, for the land has lewdly gone astray from the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, daughter of Divlayim, who conceived and bore him a son. (Hoshea 1:2-3)

The midrash recounts that after Hoshea takes this wife of harlotry and bears children with her, God asks the prophet to leave them. Hoshea declares that he cannot; they are his children. God then explains to him that just as he is unable to give up on his children, although they are “children of harlotry,” God is likewise unwilling to give up on His people, despite their sins. Therefore, as God’s emissary, the prophet may not despair of the people and pursue an independent, isolated life of his own.

A similar scenario occurs in the case of Yirmiyahu. He, too, tries to flee from his role because of the sinful behavior of Am Yisrael, but God teaches him, too, that he may not give up on entire sectors of the people – and certainly not the majority.

The Pharisees and the Essenes

We might look to the Second Temple Period for a similar situation. We know of the Essenes – a sect of learned scholars who were stringent in their application of Halakha. They took the same approach as that recommended many years later by the Rambam for when one is faced with sinful people in the city: they fled to the Judean desert, inspired by the words of the prophet Yirmiyahu:

Oh, that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people and go from them! For they are all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men. (Yirmiyahu 9:1)

But these words are not the words of Yirmiyahu himself; they are words that he conveys as coming from God. A prophet is not permitted to say such things. The Essenes establish their sect, but their path is short-lived. Cutting oneself off from the rest of Am Yisrael and despairing of their deeds is not acceptable. This direction adopted by the Essenes was continued by Christianity, where it developed and manifested itself in many negative and distorted ways.

In contrast to the Essenes, the Pharisees remained in Jerusalem, amongst the people. They remained so that they could continue leading the people, even though they would continue to sin. Despite the challenges and difficulties, despite disappointments and failures, the Pharisees remained in Jerusalem, displaying great self-sacrifice. They would continue to lead Am Yisrael in the future.

The Jewish Family and Ezra

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that a person is permitted to tell his Rav something negative about someone else only in a very particular situation. In this situation, the purpose of making the matter known to the Rav is so that the Rav will send his student away. This seems to contradict what we have said, for it clearly means that there is positive value in sending away a student who is not behaving as he should.

However, the Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that the purpose of sending the student away is in order to ultimately bring him back. The Rav banishes the student so that he will understand his mistake, internalize its meaning, and mend his ways. Then, the Rav will be able to bring him close to Torah and the proper path of serving God.

One may never despair of a fellow Jew. Adolescents often feel that their parents have given up on them, when in truth the parents simply prefer not to pressure them. But this is an abdication of the parent’s role. A parent must express his love and confidence clearly and continuously: I will not give up on you; I will not despair of you.

A situation that arose at the time of Ezra also reflects something of this message:

Now when Ezra had prayed and when he had made confession, weeping and casting himself before the House of God, there assembled to him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children, for the people wept very bitterly. And Shekhanya son of Yechiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said to Ezra, “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken alien women of the people of the land, yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all such women, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Torah. Arise, for it is your task; we also will be with you; be of good courage and do it.” (Ezra 10:1-4)

Ezra, apparently overcome with the challenge of his time, weeps and casts himself down. Notably, it is an unknown figure – Shekhanya son of Yechiel – who takes action, taking practical action to forge a covenant and to remove foreign women.

Steering the Ship

The message recurs again and again, over the course of different generations: Moshe, Yirmiyahu, Hoshea, the Essenes. Of course, it applies today, too. There are groups within Am Yisrael that express despair over other groups and their behavior. They close themselves up within the four amot of Halakha, making no real effort to aid and strengthen the parts of the nation that are spiritually weak.

When I was working on the Gavison-Medan covenant (which was meant to aid the harmonious co-existence of the religious and secular populations in Israel), I was told that I was too demanding towards the secular population. My response was that my insistence was an expression of my caring, my unwillingness to give up on the non-observant population in terms of spirituality.

In truth, the non-observant sector does not really give up on itself. The differences between us pertain to different priorities. We must learn from our parasha that we must never, in any way, under any circumstances, give up on parts of Am Yisrael. We are all in the same boat, and there is no limit to the efforts and resources demanded of us to steady the boat on the waters of Torah, allowing it to progress on its journey.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Chukat 5774 [2014].)