July 14, 2012 | 24 Tammuz 5772 | Numbers 25:10-30:1
The end of the road is no longer so distant. The “Old Guard” is largely gone. Aaron and Miriam have already died, and a new Kohen Gadol, Aaron’s son Eleazar, has already taken his place in the spiritual leadership of the Israelites. For reasons that are unclear, but likely related to Miriam’s largely unrecorded leadership within the community when she was alive, Miriam is not replaced by anyone. As for the community itself, as another census is taken in the first chapter of our parasha, we learn that…
Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they (previously) recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived, except Caleb…and Joshua. (Numbers 26:64 – 65)
Besides Caleb and Joshua no one who left Egypt remains alive except for Moses. Now his turn to leave the scene quickly approaches. In whatever time frame can be assigned to the space of eleven verses in the Torah, God informs Moses to ascent Mt. Abarim, look over the Land of Israel he will never enter and prepare to die. Moses accepts his fate and responds in a way that raises echoes of a not too distant incident…
Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:15 - 17)
In plain terms, Moses is concerned about the Israelites’ future and wants God to appoint a leader who will caringly watch over and guide his “flock” as a shepherd would care for and protect his sheep.
But it is Moses’ use of the phrase “the Lord, Source of all flesh” that should perk up our ears. We have only heard it once previously and there, again, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, was the one who invoked it. In the wake of Korach’s false allegations, God is so incensed that the Holy One desires to annihilate the entire community and start over. But Moses and Aaron entreat God…
O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)
Medieval commentators notice that Moses uses the identical phrase as he responds to
God under two very different circumstances. Generally they suggest that Moses appealed to God to use the divine abilities of knowledge and discernment to act as no human being could be expected to act as God moved forward with the Israelites.
I want to suggest that the use of this same phrase in our parasha after it appeared only in the Korach episode and its aftermath share something with us about God that the text of the Torah itself avoids.
In the first instance, with regard to Korach and the challenge he posed, God is angry seemingly beyond containment. The Holy One wants to destroy this people that has disappointed and angered the Lord once again. Profound pain is at the root of God’s wish to act decisively. Somehow, in a manner bound up with the phrase “Lord, Source of all flesh,” Moses and Aaron are able to assuage God’s raging anger.
Today, in our parasha, if anyone should be angry or pained by God’s instructions to Moses to prepare for his death, it should be Moses. His right to enter the Land of Israel with the community he has led through the wilderness is unassailable. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is not Moses who is angry or pained by the divine decree. In a manner the Torah never directly states, it is God who is pained. The second appearance (after its first appearance in the Korach story) of the phrase “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh,” hints at that divine pain.
Shouldn’t God be pained by having to fulfill the decree the Holy One has previously made to Moses that he would not enter the Land? After all, God has never shared and never will share a relationship with anyone that will compare with the relationship Moses and God shared! Of course, the impending end of that relationship has to bring the Holy One pain.
But Moses assuages God’s pain with the same appeal and in the same manner that Moses and Aaron have previously assuaged God’s anger and pain at the time of Korach’s challenge. Ironically Moses comforts God at a time when we would have expected that the Holy One might have needed to comfort Moses.
Strange? Not really. Over the course of many years, a number of people have shared stories with me about how loved ones, living their last days or hours, offered words or just a squeeze of the hand that served to comfort those who were already mourning their loss. Those who are about to leave this world have much to offer us…Moses in our parasha and our loved ones and friends.