We have in this portion the tale of the spies, sent by Moses, to scout out this land “that flows with milk and honey” (14:8). The accounts of those spies take up many aspects of traditional commentaries. Yet, lurking in the portion is a fantastic dialogue that takes place between God and Moses. In 14:11ff God again is angered by the Israelites failure to believe. God wishes to “strike them with pestilence and disown them” (14:12). Again, this God of the Wilderness accepts no breach of faith.
Moses intervenes in a very classic way. He cautions God to rethink the threat. His argument is one so many of us have used, “what will people say” if you do not bring this people to the land You promised? “If You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say It must be because God was powerless to bring that people into the land He promised them on oath that He slughtered them in the wilderness” (14:15,16) Moses then gives God a great compliment, playing to God’s ego and asks for patience and kindness (14:18,19).
What a great scene. This scenario has been (and still is ) played out in every family, group etc. A leader emegres who urges caution and reason in the face of emotion. Think before you act, after all, what will people say? The text reminded me of a challenge that we all face in life. Are we defined by what people think of us? Do we, or have we acted through a filter of how we are percieved by others? Do we allow other people’s views of us to impact how we look, think or act? Do we reach a point in life where we let go of these considerations and have the freedom to be who we wish to be? What is the role of leadership in this? In many ways, this story can be seen as a reminder to not fear to stand up for what we feel is right, even against the existing power structure. Sometimes, in the heat of emotion, we choose to do things we regret. Maybe that is why our tradition cautions us never to make decisions in the heat of anger.
Interestingly, the story in Numbers contains, in essence, two reactions. God relents for the moment. Yet, His anger is resolved by making sure that the generation of the Exodus will NOT see the Promised land. It is almost as if it is like the parent who retreats from their intial anger but eventually wields a promised punishment. This story is, in many ways, complex. We all have lived it in some ways in our lives. With our own aging many of us have learned patience and ways to harness or control the heat of emotion, while never forgetting that emotion’s cause. We learn that, in the end, we define who we are and who we wish to be and that again, what and how we choose, determines who we are.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.