How badly must a leader behave to be removed from his position of leadership? Should a leader be treated with more leniency, weighing their sin against the merits they have accrued as a dedicated public servant? Or perhaps with greater stringency and higher expectations and demands? What types of misdeeds call for which kind of consequences? Leaders being human, and fallible, these are questions that communities regularly need to consider. Chapter 20 is not the first example of this in the Torah, but it is the most tragic, and exceedingly difficult to make sense of.
What was so terrible about Moshe’s sin? Interpretations abound, because what the Torah itself explicitly says cannot be accepted at face value.
“Because you didn’t believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of my people.” What has Moshe’s life been if not a sustained attempt to sanctify God’s name in the eyes of the people? How could Moshe possibly be accused of a lack of faith in God?
But there is a problem of faith which emerges from many of the understandings suggested of Moshe’s words of actions. “Listen, you rebellious people. Will we bring forth water from this rock for you?” Moshe lacks faith in the people. After 40 years, Moshe stands before the “New Jews”, the people who are meant to now enter the land, and hears the exact same complaints he heard 40 years before. Are these a people deserving of miracles? Are they a people who can understand the nuance of the power of speech, or do they need the harsh clarity of a physical blow to learn their lesson?
This lack of faith in the Jewish people, the Torah tells us, is equivalent to a lack of faith in God. God’s choice of the Jewish people is inextricably linked with their choosing God; this is the nature of a covenantal relationship. A leader who doesn’t believe in the Jewish people’s essential covenantal commitment denies the wisdom and relevance of God’s choice, and renders meaningless his own role as facilitator of the covenant.
Among numerous sins that demand a teshuva process of the Orthodox rabbinate, this may be the deepest. The fear that the Jewish people are not up to the challenge of living a Jewish life in our world lies at the root of most of Orthodoxy’s traditional rejection of Zionism, and the varying degrees of rejection of modernity.
Is it, then, any wonder that the overwhelming majority of Jews do not identify the orthodox rabbinate as their spiritual leadership?