About midway through this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to do the following: “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered.”
In other words, God tells Moses, go to the top of the mountain and look at the land you’re not going to be entering because you disobeyed me. And then, God tells Moses, it’s time for you to die.
Let’s think about what must’ve been going through Moses’ head at this moment. He’s old, he’s tired, and after leading his people through the desert for 40 years, he’s not going to enter the Promised Land. Even worse, he’s instructed by God to go look at the Promised Land….and to see the world that’s going to go on, but without him in it. For Moses, this must have been a heartbreaking realization. For someone who’s spent much of his life as a leader, and a gifted leader, truly there is nothing more demoralizing.
After Moses gazes upon the land, something amazing happens. In Chapter 27, Verse 15, Moses decides to speak to God and it’s introduced this way: “Vayedaber Moshe l’Adonai laymor.” Which means, Moses spoke to the Lord, saying….”
There’s something interesting about that line that’s not at all apparent in the English translation. In every other instance in the Torah where Moses addresses God, the word that’s used is “vayomer” Moshe, which means, “Moses said.” But this time it was “vayedaber” Moshe. Which can also be translated to mean “Moses said.” They’re synonyms, but not identical ones.
The rabbis have a lot to say about the difference between the two words. Most agree that vayedaber has a harsher tone than vayomer. The former also has an implied hierarchy and it’s not something you would typically use when speaking to someone whose status is more elevated than yours.
Rashi says that by using vayedaber, Moses is more than simply saying something to God. He’s demanding a response. These are the words of Moses: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
So what possesses Moses to speak to God this way — not only to tell God to appoint a new leader but also to dictate the kind of leader God should pick? We would be correct in assuming that Moses is deeply concerned about the quality of leader who will come after him, and in ensuring that his successor will be capable of carrying out the business of detailed, day-to-day governance that will be required in order to build a nation. It’s also natural that Moses is cognizant of the shape his legacy is going to take.
But I believe there’s a more compelling reason Moses addresses God so forcefully. He has absolutely nothing to lose. He doesn’t have to worry about disobeying God: he’s already done that, and the worst thing that could’ve happened to Moses has already come to pass. His leadership is ending, he’s not going to be entering the Promised Land, and he has already been told that he is going to die. So why not just say what’s on his mind? To borrow a saying by Hillel, if not now, when?
We can all relate to this sudden burst of fearlessness….when you don’t care what people think and you just speak or you just act. Think of all the videos on YouTube of sprightly 90-year-olds cutting loose on the dance floor. If you still have the agility — or at least the energy — hey, why not? Might as well grab at life with gusto while you still can.
Anyone can adopt this philosophy. A few years ago there was a viral video of a little girl dancing at her school’s ballet recital to the song “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. She was shimmying and shaking with abandon and clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone else in her group was doing. The video got about 60 million views, not just because the kid was hilarious (which she was) but because her behavior was admirable. Most of us would like to be like that little girl, but we harbor grownup-sized fears of what we’ll look like, and what people will think of us.
How often do we stop ourselves from taking chances? For many of us, the answer is too often. How often do our fears stop us from trying something new? Fear of embarrassment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of conflict. The truth is that maintaining the status quo is much easier than changing it. That’s true for people, governments and, yes, synagogues. Change can be a difficult and painful process, but it’s necessary for any kind of growth to take place.
Going back to Moses, he changed the status quo with his decision to be direct with God, and speaking to God in this manner turns out to be effective. In the end, Moses’ words carry real weight. God could’ve appointed Pinchas as Moses’ successor, but that wasn’t the kind of thoughtful leader that Moses envisioned carrying on his work. Instead, God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses.
Moses’ behavior sets an important example for all of us. We don’t have to wait until we have nothing to lose in order to speak freely or to take decisive action in our lives. We just need to pretend that we have nothing to lose. We need to remember that we have value and power. That our words matter. That our actions can lead to even greater actions. That although we’d prefer not to think about it, our time here may, in fact, not be infinite.
So, in the coming week, may we move ahead with purpose and intent. May we, as a community, always encourage each other to speak freely – because a healthy exchange of ideas is what inspires us to grow and to find fulfillment within ourselves and with each other.
Have a peaceful and safe week, and Shabbat Shalom.