Mordechai Silverstein

Justice For All

Moshe paid a high price for being the children of Israel’s leader. It was not easy to shepherd a people from slavery to freedom and to usher them through the desert into their homeland. Errors in leadership were inevitable and God held Moshe accountable. Still, Moshe hoped for clemency, praying that God would forgive his misdeeds and allow him to enter the land. God responded definitively:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Go up to this Mount Avarim and see the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And you shall see it, and you shall be gathered unto your kin – you, too, as Aharon your brother was gathered, since you rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water… (Numbers 27:12-14)

The following midrash envisions the interaction between Moshe and God:

This (Mount Avarim) was in the inheritance of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad. When Moshe entered it, he was overjoyed, thinking: ‘It seems to me that God’s decree has been cancelled’ and so, he began to pour forth supplications before God.  A parable: To what can this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who decreed that his son would not enter his palace. The king entered the gate and the son followed after him, to the courtyard and the son followed, to the entry way and the son followed but when the king entered the living quarters, he said to him: ‘My son, from here on, you are not allowed.’ So, too, when Moshe entered into the inheritance of Reuven and Gad, he was happy and said: ‘It seems that God’s decree has been cancelled.’ And so, He implored God. We are to learn from this a kal v’homer (from Moshe’s experience to the universal human experience) – What if Moshe, the wisest of the wise and the greatest of the great, the father of all of the prophets, even though he knew the decree upon him had been decreed, still, he did not hold himself back from pleading for mercy, how much more so, all other people [should learn to pray before God].   (Adapted from Sifrei Bemidbar 134, Kahana ed. p. 451-2)

Here, the midrash presents Moshe as a role model for all people that it is possible to pray for mercy before God. If Moshe, who knew that his fate was sealed could, nevertheless, implore God’s mercy, how much more so those of us who are less certain of their fate. (This is a bit of ironic considering Moshe’s pleas were denied!)

The midrash then pivots to the question of why Moshe was punished so severely considering the awesome responsibility God had imposed upon him:

He (God) said to him: Moshe, [regarding his pleas], enough from you, for one does not allow the righteous to fall prey to more serious sins. From this, Rabbi Yishmael [used to say]: ‘According the camel its load.’
Another interpretation: If Moshe, the wisest of wise, the greatest of the great, the father of prophets, is not shown favoritism in judgment, then how much more so, all others (particularly those with power), whether they be those who delay judgment, or those who pervert justice, [God will surely punish them].  (adapted from Sifrei Bemidbar 135, Kahana ed. p. 457)

This midrash offers us two different approaches to explain why God denied Moshe’s prayers and punished him. In the first midrash, God punished Moshe because important people deserve to be held accountable for even the smallest of infractions so that they might not fall prey to even larger sins. Rabbi Yishmael add that for someone of Moshe’s stature, transgressing even the smallest of sins mattered and conequently required special attention.

The second interpretation emphasizes God’s demand that status should not be seen as a means for avoiding justice. If God was willing to exact punishment even on Moshe, then no one should see themselves as exempt from responsibility for their actions. God demands equal justice for all!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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