Already in parashat Chukat, God announced to Moses and Aharon that they will not be leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan, as a punishment for striking the rock to get its water rather than talking to it like God had commanded. Aharon dies shortly thereafter, but Moses continues to lead the people. In chapter 27 of this week’s parasha, after Moses and Elazar, Aharon’s son who took over as high priest, count the Israelites and ascertain that the entire previous generation had been replaced, God reminds Moses of the punishment.
The Torah is full of the phrase: “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Here, for the first time, following God’s reminder that Moses is not going to lead the Israelites to their final destination, we have the phrase “And Moses spoke to God saying.” (Numbers 27:15).
And what does Moses have to say that is so important? “God, the lord of the spirits for every flesh, should appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, and the congregation of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17).
From the unusual phrasing “and Moses spoke to God saying”, it seems as though asking God to appoint a successor for Moses was wholly Moses’ initiative. How can that be though? The past couple of parashas describe the nation challenging Moses’ (and Aharon’s) leadership time and time again. The nation is not an easy nation to lead, and when the nation does not feel safe and cared for, they make trouble. What was God going to do had Moses not asked for a replacement upon his death?
I think that God actually wanted to lead the people directly, without mediation. I was reminded of the scene right after God tells the people the ten commandments. It’s supposed to be a moment of deep spiritual communion between the nation and God, but the nation can’t handle such intensity: “And the entire nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking and nation was scared, and they trembled and stood far. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we’ll listen, and God won’t speak to to us, so that we don’t die.”
The deeper the nation settles in the physical world, the less of a place for God there is. He is too majestic, too unstable, too powerful, too disrespectful of the natural, rational order of the world, and it is impossible to really build a life for oneself so long as God can come at any minute and turn everything upside down. But God, who created the world and the laws of nature and mankind, is unable to recognize that for his world and his creation to function, he needs to take a step back. Moses, the human, needs to remind him.
This episode reminds me also of the story that takes place towards the end of Samuel the Prophet’s reign. Samuel has gotten old, his children are corrupt, and the people, no longer satisfied with having only a prophet in the highest seat of authority, demand a king to lead them. The tell Samuel: “Here you have gotten old, and your sons have not followed in your path. Now place upon us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” (Samuel 1, 8:5). Samuel is upset and goes to talk to God, who comforts him, saying: “Listen to what the people are saying to you, for it is not you that they have grown tired of; it is me.” A king derives his authority from his position; a prophet derives his authority from his connection to God. Thus, having a king lead the nation is one more distance between the people and God. But by now, God understood the creature that he created, and He (very reluctantly, especially if you take into consideration the rest of that story) agrees to do what is right for man, even if it hurts God a little.