“Love of G-d Trumps Lust for Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, G-d speaks to Moses and tells him (Numbers 31:2): “N’kom nik’mat b’nay Yisrael may’ayt ha’Midyanim,” take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites. Although it was the Moabites who first conceived of, and initiated, the plan to send Bilaam to curse the Jews, the Midianites were perceived as the real enemies. The Moabites at least had justification because they were fearful that the Israelites, who had approached their land, would attack them. The Midianites, on the other hand, had no reason to intervene and sought to harm Israel out of sheer hatred.

There was, however, a significant caveat appended to the verse in which G-d commanded Moses to avenge the Midianites. That verse concludes with the following: “Ah’char tay’ah’sayf el ah’meh’chah,” after you avenge the Midianites, you [Moses] will die and be gathered unto your people!

Moses loved life. In fact, scripture and the Midrash go to great lengths to vividly portray just how much Moses lusted for life. But more than anything, Moses loved the land of Israel. Moses begs G-d to allow him to enter the Promised Land. “Will my end be dust and ashes like all the others?” asks Moses. “All men eventually die,” responds G-d, seemingly dispassionately, “Even Adam, even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Moses then pleads with the heavens and earth to pray for him; he beseeches the moon and the stars, the hills and the mountains and the oceans–all to no avail. Moses again pleads with G-d and says, “I succeeded in convincing You to nullify Your decree to destroy all the Jewish people because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Can You not nullify Your decree against me?” G-d agrees to nullify the decree against Moses, on the condition that He will reinstate the punishment of the people for the Golden Calf. Says Moses, “Better that I die, and 100 people like me, and that not one person from the People of Israel be harmed.” Moses again asks: “If I can not come to the Land of Israel as a leader, allow me to come as one of the common folk. And if not as a commoner, turn me into a beast or a bird.” G-d emphatically refuses.

Despite Moses’s great love for life, and his desperate desire to enter the Promised Land even for a moment, when he hears the command to avenge the Midianites, he does not flinch. Moses immediately speaks to the people saying, “Hay’chal’tzoo may’eet’chem ah’nah’shim la’tza’vah,” Send out armed men from among the people to do battle. And even though G-d had specifically informed him that he will die after this war, Moses shows no sign of reluctance. In fact, the great Torah commentator, Rashi, says that Moses proceeded to carry out G-d’s mitzvah with “joy and alacrity!”

The Midrash states that when Pinchas, the leader of the battle with the Midianites, called out to the people to mobilize for the war against the Midianites, the people responded, “We heard G-d speaking to Moses saying that after the battle between Israel and the Midianites, ‘You shall be gathered unto your people.’ We therefore declare that we shall not go out to war against the Midianites, so that Moses, our shepherd, not die.”

When Pinchas reported the people’s reaction to Moses, Moses called to them and said, “Please my brothers, don’t rebel against the word of G-d. Do all that you have been commanded to do, so that it shall be good for you.” The people cried out to Moses, “Your life is precious to us. That is why we have spoken in such a manner!” Only after Moses repeatedly pleaded with the people did they set forth for battle.

This extraordinary Midrashic interchange reveals much about the nature of Moses, the leader. Like all human beings, Moses wanted to live. But most of all he longed to see, indeed, to merely peek at the Land of Israel, even if it meant that he would do so in the body of a bird. But there was one thing more precious to him than life and his desire to behold the land, and that was to heed the word of G-d, even if it would result in terminating his life!

G-d says to Moses: “Avenge the Midianites”–even though it means that you will never see the sun rise or set again, the moon wax or wane, the tide go in or out. Moses, “Avenge the Midianites”–even though you will never again see a cloudburst of summer or smell the sweet scent of an apple orchard after the rainstorm. “Avenge the Midianites”–even though you will never again see your wife, your sons or your precious Land of Israel!

Moses realizes that the value of his life will not be measured by the number of temporal pleasures he experiences, or the quantity of wheat kernels he is able to gather from the Holy Land. His life will ultimately be judged, as all our lives are measured, by how we respond to the instructions of G-d. The instructions are, after all, sweeter than honey and more pleasant than milk. Physical life is ephemeral, spiritual life is eternal.

“Avenge the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people.” This little verse reveals to us more about Moses the man, Moses the hero, Moses the leader, Moses our master, than many chapters, books or volumes could teach.

You are our master, Moses–Moshe Rabbeinu.

May you be blessed.