Here a text of yesterday’s (6/28) Shabbat sermon:
One of the things I love most about the Bible is that the characters we meet when we read the sacred stories of our people are all deeply flawed. I understand that this might seem like a strange thing to say, and maybe in an ideal world we could open our scriptures and find only examples of the very best people, with strong faith and commitment, filled with admirable qualities that we can aspire to. But instead the opposite is true in the Hebrew Bible. From the get go we know we are in a bit of trouble when Adam and Eve betray each other, Eve convincing Adam to eat of the fruit and he later quickly blaming her before God for what has happened. It gets even worse with Cain and Abel, the first brothers whose relationship ends in murder.
One would hope that Noah, who is after all called by the Torah ‘tamim’ – meaning perfect – could correct the dark picture of humanity that the text paints, but he has his own troubles with his sons, which I won’t go into right now but you can read later at your discretion – check Genesis 9 for the sordid details. Then we might like to think that introducing the first Jewish family would help to straighten things out, but the intimate portrait of Abraham and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishamel and Isaac, is a text book illustration of a dysfunctional family. At least we can say about Abraham that he had faith in God, something that seems to have stayed with him until the very end of his days.
But if there is a great hero of the Bible, it must be the towering figure of Moses, prophet and lawgiver, leader of the people, giver of the Torah, the man who spoke face to face – panim el panim, says the Torah – to God. We might hope that at least Moses, Moshe Rabeinu – Moses our teacher, as he is called – will provide for us the example of what a person should be and how a person should live. And in fact I would argue that he does, just not in the way we might hope, or at least not in the way we might expect.
First of all, Moses is also flawed, and deeply so. On a personal level he seems to have his fair share of trouble, struggling in relationship with his sons, with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, and with his wife Zipporah. But he also is flawed in his leadership, at times proving too angry for the task, at others too exasperated, and at others just simply overwhelmed. Certainly not all of the blame should be placed on his shoulders. After all, he has been thrust into this role after repeatedly telling God he wanted nothing to do with it – who can forget his plaintive plea in Exodus 3 – Please God, שלח נא ביד תשלח – send someone else, anyone else! And yet God insists and the responsibility falls on his shoulders, and he clearly struggles with it. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry the Fourth part 2 – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
But it is in precisely this way that Moses teaches some of his best lessons. Perhaps ill suited, and without question uncomfortable in his role, challenged by it, never the less he soldiers on. Sometimes he fails, and quite spectacularly – I’ll get to that in a moment. But other times he succeeds, triumphs, achieving in ways he himself never thought possible. It is Moses who destroys Pharaoh, Moses who walks at the head of the people when they finally are freed from Egypt, and it is Moses who raises his staff over the waters of the sea, drying a pathway for the Israelites to freedom.
But there are many failures along the way, and I would argue that Moses’ failures are more interesting than his successes, and also tell us more about the man, who he was and what he experienced. Becky asked me recently why every movie has to have a tragic moment, why every novel, really every narrative, has to bring the protagonist to the very brink of defeat and despair. And I think the simple answer is if not, the story just isn’t interesting. There is not a reality show that depicts a totally normal family, the parents off to work in the morning, the children doing well in school and completely adjusted, everyone getting along, no illness, no unhappiness, no tears or trauma. Why doesn’t that show exist? Because no one would watch it!! It is in failure, in crises, in times of trouble and challenge that we really learn about a family – or an individual, for that matter. And in this way too Moses was a teacher.
In this morning’s Torah portion, Chukat, we read about one of his failures, arguably his greatest. It is the strange episode of the striking of the rock. The people are complaining, as they tend to do throughout the book of Numbers. In this case, what do they want? Water! And in all fairness to Moses, they taunt and torment him with their repeated requests and complaints, telling him they would be better off dead than being with him in the wilderness, and even worse, telling him they had it better in Egypt, under Pharaoh, as slaves, then they do with Moses. Moses is boiling over with anger, and he calls out “listen you rebels, will we get water for you out of this rock?” And then he strikes the rock, twice, with his staff, and water pours out so the Israelites can drink.
This doesn’t seem like a failure at first. After all, the people wanted water, God told Moses to get the water from the rock, and he did. Win win win – everyone gets what they want – for God and Moses a few minutes of quiet, for the people, water to quench their thirst. But something went wrong, and God is not happy. “You didn’t trust me Moses. You didn’t uphold My sanctity and you didn’t have faith in Me. Because of this you will not enter the Promised Land.”
It is clear that in God’s eyes Moses failed. What the commentators disagree about is precisely what the nature of that failure was. I found more than 20 different explanations of what it was Moses did wrong. He hit the rock when God only said to speak to it. He hit it twice, when he should only have hit it once. He lost his temper and lost patience with the people at a crucial moment. And the list goes on and on. But this morning I would like to focus on one specific explanation that revolves around one phrase in the Torah in God’s criticism of Moses and Aaron – לא האמנתם בי – in your Humash if you read the English translation of that phrase you would see “you did not trust Me.” But that is not what it really means – it comes from the Hebrew word אמונה – which means faith or belief. So what God really says to Moses is ‘you did not believe in Me.’ In other words, during a crucial moment, and in front of the people no less, Moses lost his faith in God.
And even in this Moses teaches. I suppose some people might be disturbed by the idea that Moses lost his faith, but I find it oddly comforting. After all, if it happened to Moses, it could happen to anybody! And that is precisely the point. Real faith is hard fought, not easily come by. It waxes and wanes, it comes and goes, it can be clear as a bell and then foggier than a London street. And it is nice to know as it is for me – and I suspect for many of you – so it was for Moses.
Eventually his faith returned. I don’t know exactly how, or when. Chances are it happened in fits and starts, slowly over time. But isn’t it a striking thing that the man who could not find his faith in a moment of crisis will later stand before the people and proclaim שמע ישראל! Here o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone! It is a good think to know that despite that doubts – and in a strange way maybe even because of them – we can still live committed Jewish lives, part of a sacred community, engaged in an ancient covenant, and under the eyes of the Living God.