When God told Moses his days were numbered, the decree was not accepted without protest. The rabbis say that the numerical value of “Va’et’channan” is 515, indicating that Moses uttered this number of pleas to God to allow him to enter the Promised Land.
We are reminded of Abraham, who tried so hard to make a deal with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; eventually, Abraham gave up arguing. In our case, it is obvious that Moses’ pleas were rebuffed, or else he would not have needed to voice so many.
God might have been tempted to give in to Moses – after all, He owed Moses something – but, according to the Midrash, He decided that the welfare of the whole people of Israel required a new age, a new leader, a new type of leadership, and a new policy. That’s why he told Moses to appoint Joshua and to accept his fate.
There comes a time for a leader to leave his post and let someone else take over. Hopefully, the people will remember the old leader and realise what he did for them. Hopefully, the old leader will be proud of his successor, and the successor will honour the predecessor.
THE JEROBOAMS OF TODAY
The Torah reading gives us a second version of the Ten Commandments, over and above the original text in Parashat Yitro (Ex. 20). Why do we need a repeat? Because many people ignore the first version.
It recalls Jeroboam in the Book of Kings. The sages were not impressed with him. They said that he both sinned and caused others to sin.
That’s an inkling of the strange situation we have today. So many people break the Ten Commandments; they make other people break them too, and they get a reward for doing it.
To single out two groups, think of the media and the advertising world. Murder, theft, adultery, lying, coveting – all are portrayed as enjoyable, politically correct, socially acceptable and easy to do. Human life, as I heard a rabbi say after the Holocaust, has become so cynically cheap that its mass destruction isn’t greatly deplored.
Property isn’t safe, either in the conventional sense or when it comes to investments or advantage. Marriage is boring in comparison to the thrill of adultery. Truth doesn’t exist: everything, words, pictures, impressions, can be touched up and photoshopped.
Coveting? It’s the international sport – whatever anyone else has, you can also have if only you buy the right cosmetics, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, take the right holidays.
Jeroboam is the name of the game – everyone can sin and get others to sin. Jeroboam should be sued, except that those who administer the suing for you and (God forbid!) even the judges who hear the case are guilty of the same Jeroboam instincts. Nothing and nobody is safe. The Ten Commandments don’t even get lip service any more.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said he feared for the future of America. We all ought to fear for the future of mankind.
TO KNOW IS TO BELIEVE
Every Jewish thinker had issues with Jewish belief. The way that most people understand Maimonides – or think they do – he seems like an exception. The credo “I believe with perfect faith” makes Maimonides a firm believer in belief.
The problem is that it was not Maimonides who said these words: they were attached to his list of thirteen principles – probably centuries afterwards – by a later author. Maimonides himself did not speak about belief as much as knowledge.
When Maimonides analyses the Ten Commandments he does not interpret Commandment Number One (“I am the Lord your God”) as “Believe!” but “Know!” His view is that when you know what God has done for Israel and mankind, your knowledge leads to belief – and even if it doesn’t, and you never become a believer, at least you have the knowledge.
Jewish tradition always feared the ignoramus (the “am ha’aretz”) more than the heretic (the “apikoros”). Use your mind to learn and ponder the events of history, the teaching of the great personalities of the ages, the contents of the classical and modern works of wisdom, and gain the knowledge that tells you who you are and who God is, and that is beyond belief in importance.
This thought explains why in the sequence of Creation, man came last. He arrived on the scene after a series of grand moments of Divine achievement, which provided him with enough material to stimulate his mind to think about the world and to recognise the greatness of the Creator.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com