A Few Thoughts on Va’etchanan

In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11, Moses explains why he would not be taking Bnei Israel into the Promised Land after leading them for the last 40 years. It is interesting however, what Moses shares with the people and what was recorded in Numbers which we read a five Shabbats ago.

In Va’etchanan we read Moses’ perspective – “But ADONAI was angry with me because of you, so He would not listen to me” (Deuteronomy 3:26). But in Numbers 20:12, we read HaShem’s perspective – But ADONAI said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in Me so as to esteem Me as holy in the eyes of Bnei-Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land that I have given to them.”

It has been said that perception is strongly affected by what one has experienced in the past and the expectations of what one might experience in the future, and how it’s compared to the specific situation. These factors of past experiences and future expectations are often used to explain how two or more people can experience the same incident yet remember it completely different. However, in this case, it is not two different people remembering the same incident, rather it is one person remembering an incident that would profoundly affect the conclusion of not only his forty plus year ministry but his very life.

Often memory can be a funny even deceptive thing. Let’s look back at the incident once again in Numbers 20:1-2, “In the first month, the entire community of Bnei-Yisrael arrived at the wilderness of Zin. … Now there was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.” Remember Moses and Aaron had been leading Bnei Israel for almost four decades by this time. Almost all of the original people who left Egypt have now died in the wandering and have been replaced by their children and possibly grandchildren. If we were to go back and read the account of this almost four-decade relationship between Moses and Bnei Israel, one thing becomes abundantly clear, the people knew well how to grumble and complain when things did not go according to their wants and desires. A second thing they learned well was that grumbling and complaining against HaShem often brought judgement but grumbling and complaining against Moses and Aaron usually brought a satisfactory conclusion. Now, in the wilderness of Zin, water had either run low or become non-existent and instead of trusting in the provision of HaShem who has led them literally all their lives, they complained to Moses. Moses and Aaron’s immediate response was to fall on their faces before HaShem at the entrance to the Tabernacle, at which time he told them what to do (Numbers 20:7-8).

Pausing the narrative right there, one could assume at Moses and Aaron would rise up from HaShem’s presence, gather the people together, speak to the rock, thereby satisfying the needs of the people and their livestock. However, for some reason, that is not what happened. 

Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock. He said, “Listen now, you rebels! Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with the staff. Water gushed out and the community and its livestock drank.

Numbers 20:10-11

Two things are immediately clear. First, Moses did not react to the crowd in the manner that HaShem required. After gathering them together, he upbraided the crowd, calling them rebels or disobedient ones, suggesting that they (the crowd of people) were depending on him to provide for them instead of trusting in HaShem. Then he struck the rock, twice, instead of speaking to it as commanded. It should be remembered, that though his actions and attitudes were contrary to HaShem’s command, water still appeared and the satisfied the needs of the people. The second thing that is often overlooked, is that Aaron was silent throughout the incident. He could have attempted to quiet or calm his brother, but he didn’t. Thus, Moses’s actions and Aaron’s silence brought swift discipline from HaShem.

But ADONAI said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in Me so as to esteem Me as holy in the eyes of Bnei-Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land that I have given to them.”

Numbers 20:12

So, in this week’s reading, did Moses forget that he and Aaron were at fault as is stated in Numbers 20:12, or do we need to read Deuteronomy 3:26 differently. Certainly, the people carried part of the blame as their constant grumbling and complaining throughout the years of wandering surely had worn down Moses’ and Aaron’s ability to respond properly in the manner HaShem required. Plus, Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, had just died, so they were probably still suffering the grief of her passing. But neither of these excuses justify their disobedience to the command of HaShem. 

In Yaacov’s letter to his community, it’s written,

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, since you know that we will receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man (or woman)…

James 3:1-2

If this higher standard is true of teachers, how much more so it is true of leaders, whether they be secular or religious. Moses and Aaron had the responsibility of exhibiting their trust in HaShem and his word. They were to establish HaShem’s holiness in the eyes of the people – but they did not. So, while Moses could say to Bnei Israel, in all honesty, “ADONAI was angry with me because of you, because your constant complaining and grumbling wore me down,” he could not absolve himself of his own personal disobedience to the expressed word of HaShem.

Yaacov tempered his warning to teachers (and I believe leaders) that we all stumble, it is in our very nature to do so. However, he followed that tempering with “If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man.” Many he was remembering Yeshua’s words recorded by Matthew,

“But I tell you that on the Day of Judgment, men will give account for every careless word they speak. For by your words, you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matthew 12:36-37

Moses’ careless words, regardless of the reason they were said, kept him from entering the promise land with the people he had led for almost four decades. May it always be that we are justified by our words and not condemned by them.

* All Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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