Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Just the Messenger” Parashat Chukkat 5781

On the road to the Land of Israel, the Jewish People arrive at the border of Edom, the land of the descendants of Esav, the brother of our forefather, Jacob. To gain passage, Moshe gives the King of Edom a brief lesson in Jewish history [Bemidbar 20:14-16]: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to G-d and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory.” We had a hard time in Egypt, now we want to go home, please let us through, thank you very much.

The Torah’s use of the word “messenger (malach)” is awkward in that it is in direct contradiction to the Pesach Haggadah. In its midrashic interpretation of the verse [Devarim 26:8] “G-d freed us from Egypt”, the Haggadah teaches, “[We were freed] not through an angel[1] (malach) and not through a seraph and not through a messenger (shaliach), but [directly by] the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself”. To emphasize this point, Moshe’s name has all but been removed from the Haggadah[2]. How can the Haggadah assert that G-d did not make use of a messenger if the Torah explicitly says He did?

Many solutions to this dilemma have been proposed. In this lesson, we will travel down a path blazed by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century. Rabbi Soloveichik, writing in “Festival of Freedom”, begins his explanation by noting that Moshe was a necessary component of the redemption: “Had G-d not succeeded in persuading Moshe to accept the assignment, there would have been no Exodus”. Nevertheless, continues Rabbi Soloveichik, the messenger is not recognized after he has completed his task. His proof comes from the Haggadah’s assertion that G-d did not redeem His nation by means of a messenger. But didn’t Moshe tell the King of Edom that G-d “sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt”? Rabbi Soloveichik answers, “ Moshe was a messenger who served only as a companion for the A-lmighty. Such a messenger does not deserve credit, so his name is not mentioned. Every miracle executed by Moshe was performed by the A-lmighty”. This creates a paradox. On one hand, Moshe’s participation was a vital ingredient to the redemption. On the other hand, as soon as Moshe’s assignment on the historical stage was complete, “the lights dimmed and he walked off in darkness”. Rabbi Soloveichik emphatically asserts: Moshe was no hero and so he neither claims or deserves no credit. What was Moshe’s role? Rabbi Soloveichik explains that Moshe’s role was not as a redeemer – “Man cannot usurp G-d’s attributes of power” – but as a teacher – “The attributes of wisdom, knowledge, kindness, and grace belong exclusively to G-d but man has a right – even a duty – to usurp them, to take something of G-d’s attributes for himself. He is duty-bound to imitate G-d – not regarding power but regarding teaching”. While Moshe’s name is absent from the Haggadah, the Torah, which G-d calls [Malachi 3:22] “My servant Moshe’s Torah”, is named after him.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the great-nephew of Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik and the Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, puts a top-spin on his great-uncle’s explanation. In January, 2017, Rabbi Soloveichik wrote an article that appeared in “First Things[3]” called “King David”. The article begins with a description of the tension between Judaism’s great respect for King David and the antagonism that it holds for the entire concept of monarchy. Our Sages in the Midrash [Devarim Rabbah] teach that G-d had never intended for there to be a Jewish monarchy. The laws of kings appear in the Torah only in case the Jews felt it necessary, for whatever the reason, to appoint a king. To paraphrase the Midrash, monarchy is anti-Jewish: “The appointment of a king is akin to idolatry; it is a form of honouring and placing one’s trust in someone who is not G-d.” Why, then, do Jews pray three times daily to merit seeing a descendant of David on the throne of Israel?

Rabbi Soloveichik begins his response with an idea put forward by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth: “The greatest challenge is not slavery but freedom; not poverty but affluence; not danger but security; not homelessness but home. The paradox is that when we have most to thank G-d for, that is when we are in greatest danger of not thanking – nor even thinking of – G-d at all.” The greatest risk with monarchy is that the monarch will begin to worship himself. David shatters this mould. Rabbi Soloveichik writes, “David is chosen… because throughout his career he sees and cites G-d as the source of his success, as well as the success of the state he rules. He embodies the importance of Jewish power, of military might, and at the same time ascribes all triumph, all success, all glory to G-d”. When David stands before the giant Goliath, he chides him [Samuel I 17:45] “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of G-d”. Even though David encounters continued success in both military and economic spheres, he refuses to let society idolize him. There is no better evidence than his masterpiece, the Book of Psalms. Psalms address the entire gamut of human being – from joy to pain to victory to defeat. David dedicates every last one of them to G-d. The Book of Psalms can be summarized by its final sentence [150:6]: “Let all that breathes praise G-d”. For this reason, explains Rabbi Soloveichik, David could not be allowed to build the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash). G-d explains to him [Chronicles I 22:8] “You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a House for My name”. The concern was that David would build the Beit HaMikdash to glorify his own military exploits: “Thus David’s dream was denied lest Judea become Rome, and David become Vespasian, who constructed a colosseum as an eternal testament to his own conquests.” Time and time again, David rose above self-glorification. Rabbi Soloveichik concludes “David’s legacy – biblical, Talmudic, and archaeological – challenges us to reflect on how Jews can create a society that can celebrate its successes but not idolize itself. David challenges us to envision a double project: sustaining a functioning, prosperous polity that points beyond its worldly achievements to God’s higher purposes.” Hence our great admiration for Kind David and hence our prayer that specifically his monarchy be restored.

Combining the two Rabbi Soloveichik’s, it is clear that Moshe served as David’s role model. Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik’s Moshe is a person who had every reason in the world to revel in self-glorification and yet he chooses not to. Without Moshe, G-d could not have redeemed the Jewish People from Egypt. Without Moshe, G-d could not have given mortal man the Torah. And yet, Moshe sees his greatness not in his own achievements but in the negation of his own self to G-d. G-d says “Remember My servant Moshe’s Torah”: “G-d’s Torah” becomes “Moshe’s Torah” only when “Moshe” becomes “My servant, Moshe”. Jewish law teaches that whatever a slave acquires belongs to his master. This is the essence of Moshe, this is the essence of David, and this is the essence of the Jewish People.

Certain people I have met have over the years have great difficulty calling the Jewish People the “Chosen People”. They feel that it is a presumptuous title. They feel that if one nation is considered the “Chosen People”, then all others have, by definition, not been chosen. The term “Chosen People” takes on a completely different hue when we understand the mission for which we have been chosen. The Jewish People have not been chosen in order to stand out. We have been chosen to become messengers of the Divine. We have been chosen to be like Moshe and King David. We have been chosen to negate ourselves to a cause much greater than ourselves. This is our mission and this is our reward.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] It seems strange that Sefaria translates the word “malach” as “messenger” in one instance and as “angel” in another. The is because Sefaria uses the JTS translation of the Torah while its translation of the Haggadah comes from a different source.

[2] Other than in one location discussing the number of plagues that that quotes the verse [Shemot 14:31] “They believed in G-d, and in Moshe, His servant”

[3] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/01/king-david

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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