Portion of the Week Moses' Broken Spirit

A totally spiritual individual cannot single-handedly lead a "flesh-and-blood" nation. But similarly, heaven help a nation whose leaders wander in spiritual spheres, but cannot sense the people's distress.

Talking with his father-in-law Jethro (Numbers 10:29-32), Moses is optimistic about the Promised Land he and his people will enter within a few days. Like any professional organizational consultant, Jethro knows that the best thing for Moshe is to be back home and in his natural surroundings. After their conversation, the Torah enthusiastically describes the beginning of the Israelites' journey through the wilderness: "And they set forward from the mount of the Lord three days' journey: And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel" (Numbers 10:33-36).

The ark of the covenant cuts a path for the Israelites, who are protected by a divine cloud. The next chapter, however, has a different character. Suddenly, the pleasant, easy journey becomes a nightmare: "And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp" (Num. 11:1).

We have taken only a few steps toward Canaan and already the grumbling has begun. Although the Torah does not specify precisely why the Israelites are complaining, we can guess: It is hot, the children are cranky, the route is unclear and the destination distant. The rabble begins complaining and this time the demand is clear: They want meat! Tired of the same bizarre, bland food descending daily from heaven, they want something substantial that they can sink their teeth into and feel on their palate: "And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Would that we were given flesh to eat? ... And Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, every man at the door of his tent: and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased" (Num. 11:4-10).

Moses, who only the day before saw everything through rose-colored glasses, now confronts the ugly reality of a nation of slaves hungry for meat. Whereas, in the previous passage cited, we read that "it displeased the Lord," we now learn that "Moses also was displeased." He is fed up, after a year that included the Exodus from Egypt, the Red Sea's parting, war with Amalek and the sin of the Golden Calf. His words to God about the Israelites are harsh: "And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? For they trouble me with their weeping, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness" (Num. 11:11-15).

'Man of God'

A puzzling speech. In Egypt, where the Israelites suffered in bondage, Moses complained to God about their plight: "Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with this people? Why is it that thou hast sent me?" (Exodus 5:22). Now, however, he complains about himself: "Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant?"

Seeking to save the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf, he presented God with an ultimatum: Either forgive them or "blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written" (Exod. 32:32). Now Moses asks God: "Kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness." Moses cannot tolerate the Israelites any longer; he is sick at heart. Finding it difficult to accept this straightforward interpretation of his words, our sages argued that the text, amended by scribes, was originally "Let me not see their [the Israelites'] wretchedness."

What happened to Moses? What has broken his spirit? Perhaps his crisis is connected to the divine revelation and spiritual growth he has experienced. For 40 days and 40 nights, he was miraculously bonded to holiness, rising to a spiritual level of communication with God and inevitably separating himself, to a certain extent, from his body and his bodily needs. He ceases cohabiting with his wife and sets up his tent outside the Israelite camp. From that unique experience of spiritual elevation onward, he becomes known as "the man of God" (Deuteronomy 33:1). As he prepares together with the nation for entering Canaan, he envisages a paradise. Although the Israelites' initial complaining hurts him, what breaks his spirit is the lustful demand for meat, which so starkly contrasts with his spirituality. He stands helpless before the Israelites' demand: "Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people?"

The horrifying gap between his spirituality and the Israelites' craving for meat overwhelms him, breaking his spirit. God's response is pragmatic: "Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel" (Num. 11:16). Moses' leadership must be backed by a supportive network. It is no longer enough to have the nation led by a prophet who can see distant horizons, but who cannot grasp that the pebbles in the stream are wounding the feet of the Israelites crossing it.

A totally spiritual individual cannot single-handedly lead a "flesh-and-blood" nation. Heaven help a nation whose leaders are concerned only with physical matters such as the consumption of meat, and who have no vision; similarly, heaven help a nation whose leaders wander in spiritual spheres, but cannot sense the people's distress. National leadership must include both individuals with vision and the practical minded, whose roots intertwine with those of their constituents.