Few Torah readings underscore the limitations of human nature—even those of our greatest leaders—as does Parashat Beha’alotekha (Numbers 8 through 12), read last Shabbat. A literary analysis of chapter 11 especially shows us Moses in all his flawed and very real humanity.
Although in the Book of Genesis we get plenty of “Avot v’Imahot Behaving Badly” (what with some florid manifestations of trickery, sex jealousy and sibling rivalry), the characters in the early family saga of the Israelites are more archetypes than people. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel for the most part each stand for a few human qualities, but are present mostly to establish the plot, God making His covenant with the nascent Israelite tribe and moving it across Canaan to Egypt, where the real action begins. Only when we get to the Book of Exodus and Moses do we begin to experience a fully rounded character.
By the time Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he’s already had two lifetimes’ worth of experiences, and at age 80 he takes on the biggest retirement project imaginable, herding tens of thousands of folks across a desert with all their stuff while keeping track of 12 different tribes and being the mouthpiece for God as He lays down an endless stream of new regulations and warnings. And here’s the thing: he isn’t that good at it. Within weeks, his father-inlaw is giving him advice about delegating responsibility and his brother is letting the kahal dance around a golden idol while Moses is away collecting the Law.
Parashat Beha’alotkha, which lies about the same distance from the end of the Torah as the account of the first weeks of Israelite freedom comes after the beginning, repeats some of the themes introduced in Exodus. Moses gets further instructions about the Passover sacrifice; his father-in-law shows up again without intending to stay; and the Israelites are once more complaining about their rations. The manna from heaven that was introduced in Exodus 16 is described again in Numbers 11, right after the multitude starts whining again about the variety of foods they used to have in Egypt and are missing now.
Moses has had it (and remember, this is early in the second year of what’s going to become a 40-year journey). He confronts (an understandably angry) God and says, “If this is what you’re going to do to me, hargeini na, kill me, please” (Numbers 11:15). It’s the cry sent up at one time or another by every classroom teacher, business owner and synagogue president: Just kill me now.
This time it’s God who reminds Moses that he needs to delegate authority; He then solves the food crisis by sending the Israelites enough meat to make them sick. Does this experience turn Moses into a calm, authoritative executive? It does not. In the next Torah portion, Moses sends scouts to scope out the Promised Land, most of whom bring back such a wimped-out report that God extends the Israelites’ journey to 40 years. (That’s when I would have yelled, “Just kill me, please.”) A bit later, Moses seeks God’s help in putting down a rebellion he can’t control and, finally, loses his temper in a way that causes God to bar him from entering the Land.
And you know what? It’s okay. Moses has skills. He’s an excellent negotiator in his exchanges with God (in modern terms, substitute agitated parent, dissatisfied customer, angry congregant), and he has the stamina for the long haul, reaching the eastern bank of the Jordan, with his eyes undimmed and his vigor unabated. He never loses faith in God or in the mission God sent him on. In the end, Moses is Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, precisely because he is so human, able to instruct us through both his strengths and his flaws.
—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah