The Punishment for Inaction

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


This Shiur is dedicated Le-zekher Nishmat
Avraham Mordechai Belaciano ben Faride, zl whose yahrzeit is 14 Tamuz.

Adapted by Immanuel Mayer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The punishment

The focus of our parasha is the sin of Moshe and Aharon, which carries an exceedingly harsh punishment – Moshe and Aharon will not enter the Land of Israel. Reading the verses, one is struck by the seeming injustice. After all, just a few parashot earlier, we found ourselves identifying quite naturally with Moshe’s honest and open acknowledgment of difficulty:

“Have I conceived all this nation? 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?” (Bamidbar 11:12)

Concerning Aharon, likewise, the punishment seems unfair. After so many years of trials and tribulations, ups and downs, in Egypt and in the wilderness, it is difficult to accept the verdict that these leaders will not enter the land.

In addition to the above, we must also keep in mind the origin of Moshe’s mission. Standing before the burning bush, Moshe was reluctant to take on this calling. He had no desire to lead the nation, bring them out of Egypt and guide them to the mountain of God. He tried strenuously to extricate himself from this appointment – “Send, I pray You, by the hand of him whom You will send.” Eventually, however, Moshe is forced to take on this heavy responsibility. Is it fair that his mission, which he had not wanted in the first place, should end with such a harsh punishment?

We need to understand and internalize the significance of this punishment. The climax of Moshe’s leadership, the ultimate realization of his personality, lay in that entry into the land. Preventing him from entering represents a resounding slap in the face: he may see the land, but not enter its gates.

Chazal grapple with this question:

“Rabbi Acha taught: … It is written, ‘It is very tempestuous round about Him’ – this teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, is exacting with those who are close to Him, even to a hair’s breadth.” (Bava Kama 50a)

The teaching is well-known, but it fails to satisfy. “To a hair’s breadth” – we understand strict justice, but to the extent of barring Moshe’s entry into Eretz Yisrael?!

In order to understand the punishment that Moshe and Aharon suffer, we must first gain a better understanding of their sin. The commentators propose various interpretations. The Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed, for example, explains that Moshe grew angry, and for this he was punished. This connects with the Rambam’s emphasis on the very problematic and dangerous nature of anger, as set forth in the second chapter of his Hilkhot De’ot. The problem with his explanation is that the verses make no explicit mention of any anger. Other interpretations similarly explain the severity of the sin involved, while remaining vague as to its exact identification in the text. What exactly was the sin of Moshe and Aharon?

The sin

Let us try to answer the question by referring to the verses at the end of Parashat Haazinu:

“Ascend this Mount Avarim, Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moav, that is opposite Yericho, and behold the land of Kena’an which I give to Bnei Yisrael for a possession. And die in the mount into which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aharon your brother died in Hor ha-Har and was gathered to his people, because you transgressed against Me (me’altem bi) amongst Bnei Yisrael at the waters of Merivat-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Tzin, because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of Bnei Yisrael. You shall then see the land before you, but you shall not go there into the land which I give to Bnei Yisrael.” (Devarim 32:49-52)

In these verses, the sin is described as “me’ilah” (misappropriation of hekdesh, that which belongs to the Temple or is set aside for God) – a transgression which Chazal equate with the gravest violations: prohibited sexual relations and idolatry. Whether the me’ilah involves stealing or whether it involves the use of and benefit from hekdesh, it is regarded as a most serious transgression.

The verse cited above presents an identical structure in describing the sin: “Because you transgressed against Me (me’altem bi)… because you did not sanctify Me (lo kidashtem oti).” Clearly, the me’ilah is equated with “failure to sanctify.” Contrary to our intuitive sense that there must be something wrong with what Moshe and Aharon did, the verse states simply and explicitly that the sin is grounded in what they did not do.

At the beginning of his Hilkhot Teshuva (1:1), the Rambam writes:

“If a person transgresses any of the commandments of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command – whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents and turns from his sin, he must confess before the blessed God, as it is written: ‘If a man or a woman commits... they must confess the sin that they committed.’ This refers to verbal confession.”

The Rambam is talking about positive as well as negative commands. Concerning both there is a need for repentance, and both require confession. Transgression of a prohibition (negative command) is on the same level as non-performance of an obligation (positive command).

Moshe and Aharon, it seems, are severely punished for inaction, for failure to sanctify God’s Name amongst Bnei Yisrael.

We must understand the significance of this opportunity for kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) that was missed. Chazal teach about the importance of different times:

“Rabbi wept and said: There are some who acquire their world [i.e., their portion in the World to Come] over many years [of hard work and devotion], and there are others who acquire their world in a single moment.” (Avoda Zara 17a)

It is possible to acquire one’s world in an instant – and it is possible to lose it in an instant, too. Not all moments are equal. There are fateful, auspicious times that set the stage for great and momentous events, and there are regular moments, the humdrum day-to-day routine.

Kiddush Hashem at Mei Meriva

What was so fateful and momentous about that instant when Moshe struck the rock? The answer to this question has two parts to it. The first appears in the same verse in Parashat Haazinu: “…because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of Bnei Yisrael.” There are two aspects to this verse. The first is quantitative: the kiddush Hashem that can potentially happen here, whatever it may be, will take place before all of Bnei Yisrael. The entire nation would see Moshe approach the rock and quietly speak to it, and water would then emerge from the rock. This would be an open miracle, witnessed by the younger generation – the generation that will be entering the land.

The other aspect is qualitative – i.e., pertaining to the nature of the kiddush Hashem. Following immediately on from the description of the sin, there is God’s reaction (Bamidbar 20:12):

“And God said to Moshe and to Aharon: Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you shall not bring this congregation in to the land which I have given them.” (Bamidbar 20:12)

A kiddush Hashem almost took place “in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael.” The popular aphorism asserts that “a picture is worth a thousand words” – or, as Chazal put it: “Hearing is not the same as seeing.” In contrast to views that maintain that seeing is too “physical” an interaction with the world and that “hearing” is therefore preferable from a spiritual point of view, we believe that seeing is better in the absolute sense.

In describing the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah records that “all the people saw the sounds” (Shemot 20:15). The moment was so great, so elevated and so utterly removed from the ordinary that Bnei Yisrael saw sounds. Of course, they also heard the sounds, but the emphasis is on the seeing, which exerts far greater impact and is more important. This was such a profoundly meaningful experience that the eye saw that which it is not capable of seeing.

Similarly, in the prophetic vision of the End of Days we find an expression of seeing that which would usually be heard:

“And the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh will behold, together, that the mouth of God has spoken.” (Yishayahu 40:5)

All flesh will see that the mouth of God has spoken. In the End of Days, once again, we will reach that very high level where we will see with our eyes the realization of God’s word.

In the realm of justice, we usually distinguish between two types of evidence: there is evidence that clarifies (berur) and evidence that establishes (kiyyum). The first type is evidence that clarifies something that occurred in the past. This is relatively technical information, with no effect on the action or event itself. The other type of evidence is where the very presence of the witness at the scene imbues the action with substance and meaning, thereby creating the halakhic applicability. All of this, of course, relies on the witnesses’ sense of sight.

Chazal teach that one who recites “Va-yekhulu” (the first part of the Kiddush recited on Shabbat eve, citing the Torah’s description of the conclusion of Creation – Bereishit 2:1-3) testifies to God’s act of Creation and thereby becomes a partner in it. This certainly sounds like testimony of the second type, where the witness becomes involved in the act itself. Of course, man does not become a partner in the act of Creation in the literal sense. God alone is the Creator of the world. However, the testimony represents some form of affirmation and confirmation of that fact in this world; in other words – a kiddush Hashem.

The punishment for inaction

It was this potential for kiddush Hashem that faced Moshe and Aharon at the time: a miracle performed before the entire nation, that they would see with their own eyes. And the greatness of the hour and of the moment meant that the absence of such a kiddush Hashem was a great failure.

The Gemara lists the questions that a person is asked when he comes before the Heavenly Court:

“Rabba said: When a person is brought for judgment, they say to him: Did you conduct your affairs with integrity? Did you set times for Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you anticipation the redemption? Did you engage in the intricacies of wisdom? Did you infer one thing from another?” (Shabbat 31a)

A person is not questioned as to whether or not he ate pork. The questions are not about actions that he should not have taken. The person who finds himself in trouble before the Heavenly Court – as depicted here – is not one who has violated prohibitions and committed transgressions. Rather, it is the person who failed to do what he should have done: a Jew who did not set times for Torah; who did not fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Sometimes, failure to act is far more serious than negative action. We must do all that we can so that when we come before the Heavenly Court, we can answer in the affirmative: Yes, I engaged in procreation; yes, I set times for the Torah; and yes, I lived in anticipation of the redemption.