Moshe Rabbenu’s Failures

Eight Nisan

Pointing out others’ failures can be an act of smugness. Or, as I hope it will be for us, it can be a reminder that it’s never easy, for any of us. Especially since we’ve just seen the greatness Moshe had at birth and then developed, seeing that he did not always manage to take his best next step alerts us to the possibility of failure but also reminds us to never let those failures fool us into thinking we cannot still accomplish great deeds.

We look at Moshe because it’s easier than looking at ourselves. If we open our minds enough, what he did can spark our thoughts about what we would have done and let us plan for a better future, to use his experience to improve our chances of fulfilling our potential.

Moshe’s Concern for His Brother

The first place Moshe does less than perfectly is when Hashem tells him that he has been chosen as the prophet to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Moshe resists, at length—an example, as we saw previously, of his taking advantage of his Hashem-invited right to debate the Divine plan and successfully offer adjustments to it.

His last words before Hashem shuts down the conversation, 4;13, are “שלח נא ביד תשלח, send please through the hands of whom You will send.” Rashi thinks that refers to Aharon, who was then the leader of the slaves in Egypt and their prophet. Moshe worried that his surpassing him in the national hierarchy would insult his brother. Why would Hashem turn to a new messenger when there was already one in place?

The Torah tells us this was the wrong move; before we look at that, note the family drama in this moment. It was daunting enough that he was being told to be the point man for the Exodus, to take on the leadership of a people he hadn’t seen in decades, but he was also going to supplant his older brother, who had stayed in Egypt all these years. While he was off seeing the world, as it were, Aharon worked with the people, suffered with them, served as their prophet, strove to keep them as close to Hashem as possible. Moshe was being told to swoop in and supersede him.

His resistance crossed a line, as we’re about to see, but it would be unfair to review the sources that portray him as being in the wrong without being sure we are aware of the pressures that pushed him to act as he did.

Failure and Consequences

4;14, describes Hashem as reacting with חרון אף, wrath (neither text nor commentators tell us how Moshe should have known it was time to stop, so I will not speculate on that).

Yehoshua b. Korchah, Zevachim 102a, says that that phrase always comes with a punishment, and wonders why we do not see one here. R. Shimon b. Yochai replies that there was a punishment, the High Priesthood being transferred from Moshe to Aharon. In his view, Hashem’s original plan was that Moshe would be High Priest as well as prophet and political leader, Aharon an “ordinary” Levi.

If separating the leadership and the High Priesthood was a punishment, Hashem’s original plan was to have Moshe handle all those roles. Today, we recoil from such centralized power; perhaps Moshe’s misconduct job justifies these concerns, perhaps it’s the reason Hashem’s חרון אף took this form. But we have to notice that R. Shimon b. Yochai thought that Hashem originally believed that the value of Moshe filling all those roles— and perhaps only someone as exceptional as Moshe— outweighed the problems.

Exacerbating the sting of knowing we will never know how the world would have looked had Moshe not gone over this line, is that his protest turned out to be pointless. Hashem tells him Aharon will rejoice fully when he sees his brother in his new role. For Ramban, Hashem was saying that Aharon was so selfless, he would have come of his own volition to help Moshe once he heard of his brother’s mission. Aharon was not only unconcerned with slights to his honor, he was anxious to contribute however he could.

His failure to recognize his brother’s egolessness lost Moshe the High Priesthood. The rest of us will never know what we lost.

Moshe and Tzipporah at the Inn

4;24-26 tells the story of the angel threatening either Moshe or his son at the inn. Nedarim 31b assumes the angel came because Moshe failed to circumcise his son at his first practical opportunity. For someone like Moshe, a lack of alacrity was a plausibly capital crime (unless we assume the angel was only there to threaten death) despite his having just been appointed the central figure of the Exodus.

A reminder that we can excuse our failings too lightly. Moshe does something that seems truly minimal—delaying a circumcision— yet Chazal saw it as a serious failure. They also assumed the plasticity of Hashem’s plans. Hashem chose him, we would think, because he was the best messenger. A subtext of the story is that had he died at the inn, Hashem’s plan for history (and the redemption of the Jews) would have happened, some other way. Perhaps less good, but it would have continued on.

The question is never whether Hashem’s Will will be done, it is how much of our slated role each of us will succeed in contributing to getting it done. This time, in Rashi’s reading, Tzipporah saves the day, avoiding the consequences of Moshe’s failure, and letting him live to fulfill more of his destiny.

Moshe Rabbenu’s Doubt as a Reason Not to Enter the Land

At the end of chapter 5 (after the officers of the people accosted him for worsening their situation), Moshe complains that the redemption has not yet happened. Hashem says (6;1), עתה תראה, now you will see, what I will do to Par’oh. Rashi writes that Hashem was telling him that because of his doubts, he would see now what was done to Par’oh, would not see what would be done in the future to the Canaanite kings.

For all that Rashi identifies this as the moment Moshe lost his right to enter Israel, he later says (such as Bamidbar 20;12) that he only lost that right when he hit the rock at Mei Merivah. However we resolve that, the discussion in Sanhedrin 111a on which Rashi was relying also contrasts Moshe’s conduct to that of the Avot, who never complained, despite seeing few of Hashem’s promises fulfilled.

We have no reason to think we’d have done better, but it’s still an example of where the story went in a different direction from the ideal. The Jews could have had Moshe march them to the Land instead of Yehoshua, with all the ripples for future history that would have brought, if only Moshe had not complained here (and hit the rock later).

The Problem with Moshe’s Call to Hashem                                   

In 14;15, as the Jews are huddled at the Sea, watching the Egyptians bear down on them, Hashem asks Moshe why he’s crying to Him. Rashi reads that as a rebuke for praying during a time for action, another instance where Moshe is expected to know what to do even without direct orders. However that was supposed to happen, it didn’t here; Moshe didn’t realize he was supposed to lead, not pray.

Ramban lets Moshe off easier, seeing the rebuke as about the urgency with which he called Hashem, being צועק, screaming, rather than asking. Moshe (and the Jewish people) need to learn, according to Ramban, that faith leads to a prayerful but confident approach, not flailing or screaming, even when matters seem desperate.

More ‘how should we do this?’ than ‘oh, no, save us, Hashem!’

Sforno once again takes the verse in a wholly different direction, that Moshe was complaining that the Jews would never trust him enough to enter the water on his say-so. When Hashem says מה תצעק אלי, why are you calling to me, Sforno reads that as a rebuke for thinking ill of the people, who in fact would listen to him.

Born with the greatness that made him the one to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe’s first months in that role were, by one standard, wildly successful. He was the faithful servant who performed the tasks Hashem told him, bringing the Jews out of Egypt, through the Sea, and permanently away from their former masters. Our commentators have shown us other elements to his tenure, that often even apparently tremendous achievements could have been that much better.

But perhaps Moshe Rabbenu is too great for us to see him as a model upon which to build. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how our commentators view the Jewish people’s successes and failures, perhaps a closer enough parallel to stimulate our imagining what we would have done at the Exodus.