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Jewish Journal

Commitment Counts

Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22)

by Rabbi Joel Rembaum

July 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Ask 10 Jews with a reasonable background in Torah the question, "Why did God not allow Moses to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land?" and nine of them would probably say: "Because Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it in order to bring forth water and failed to sanctify God, as God had commanded him."

One of the 10 people might answer: "After Moses' scouts returned and told the Israelites that the people who inhabited the land were larger and stronger and lived in great cities with high walls, the people lost faith in God, and God became angry with Moses for acceding to the people's request to send out the scouts."

According to the narrative in this week's parsha, that would also be a correct answer.

Perhaps, another person might answer: "The Torah offers us two answers to that question and two versions of the incident of the scouts," and he or she would be right, too.

A modern interpretation of Torah suggests two different traditions regarding Moses' punishment in the Pentateuch -- one in Numbers, which views Moses as being held accountable for not following God's instructions to sanctify God before the Israelites; the other in Deuteronomy, in which Moses shares in the people's guilt for questioning God's ability to give Canaan to the Children of Israel.

From a modern viewpoint, there are two different versions of the account of the scouts -- the one in Numbers 13, in which God actually appears to initiate the project, and the one in Deuteronomy 1, in which the initiative lies with the people. Traditional commentaries link the two accounts of the scouts and the two reasons for Moses' punishment and view them as two sides of the same problem God had with Moses.

The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, for example, suggests that Moses erred in handling the scouts by encouraging them to report on matters that didn't concern them. The Yalkut notes that the people said: "Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to" (Deuteronomy 1:22). Moses, however, charged the scouts to find out if the people who lived there were weak or strong, or few or many and if the cities were open or fortified (Numbers 13:17-19).

According to the Yalkut, in so doing, Moses planted seeds of doubt in their minds. After all, with God on their side, what difference would the strength of the people or of their cities have made to the Israelites?

So when the scouts came back, they reported on the strength and great size of the people and the heavy fortification of their cities. They expressed doubts, and this panicked the people, who refused to enter Canaan. The Yalkut concludes that when God punished Moses after the incident of the rock, God took the matter of the scouts into consideration and punished him for both -- the common denominator being that Moses failed on both occasions to instill within the people an unflagging faith in God.

Even before the 38 years of wandering that followed the incident with the scouts, Moses was worn down by the burden of leadership. His ability to demonstrate uncompromising faith in God had started to weaken. And at the end of those wandering years, when he struck the rock twice in anger, it was clear to God that Moses' ability to inspire faith in others had declined to the point where he could not bring the Children of Israel into Canaan and empower them through faith to settle the land.

The person who would lead the Israelites into Canaan would be Joshua, whose strength of character, courage and faith remained undiminished by what he saw as one of the scouts and whose capacity to lead and to inspire remained vital, even after all the years in the wilderness.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the Yalkut's interpretation. A person charged with responsibility for instilling a commitment to an ideal within others must be totally committed to that ideal and must do everything in her or his power to model the ideal.

Michael Josephson, in his brief "Character Counts" commentaries on KNX-AM 1070, makes this point all the time. He is speaking not only to the great leaders among us but to the parents, the teachers, the store managers, the City Council members and reminding us there are certain ultimate values -- faith in God, basic ethical and moral values, love, compassion, justice -- that must remain operative at all times and under all conditions.

We live at a time when such values are regularly challenged, and we are aware of those challenges in ways people who lived in the generations that came before us were not. It's easy to abandon such ideals for the sake of expediency, assuming that without them, we can more easily achieve our goals. The message from the Torah is that by abandoning such principles, you will never make it to the Promised Land.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

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