Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 12, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat BeHa’alotecha

In this week’s Torah portion, the people complain that they are tired of eating manna. They demand meat and they recall the wonderful food they ate while they were slaves in Egypt. “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Moses reacts in an uncharacteristic way to this most recent whining of the Israelites. He complains to G-d saying, “Did I give birth to this people that you tell me to take care of them like a nurse-maid cares for an infant? Where am I going to get meat for all of these people? If this is how you are going to treat me, then just kill me.”

Let us remember that Moses is the epitome of a Jewish leader. When we want to know how should a leader of the Jewish community act, we look to Moses as our model. It is clear from this bitter response that Moses has reached a point of crisis. This episode highlights for us just what a daunting task Moses was attempting to accomplish. The demands placed on his leadership were enormous. Not only did Moses lead the people out of Egypt (and if that’s all he did, it would have been a tremendous feet of leadership), but he also brought us to Mt. Sinai where he received the Torah for us and taught it to us. But even greater than this awesome task was the challenge that he faced in having to shape this people into a nation that would be able to conquer a land and establish a country.

It is clear from the complaint of the people that they are totally incapable of accomplishing these difficult tasks. They are still looking backward, yearning for the time when the Egyptians provided them with their basic needs. “So what if we did not have freedom, at least the food was great!”

Conquering the land of Israel was not going to be easy. In 1947, after the U.N. voted for the partition plan, the Hebrew poet Nathan Alterman wrote a famous poem entitled “The Silver Platter.” The theme of the poem was that a state is not handed to a people on a silver platter. If we want a country of our own, we are going to have to fight for it. This challenge also faced the generation that was born in the wilderness. They needed to muster the courage and the prowess to conquer the land. The truth is that when one reads the books of Joshua and Judges, which are the books of the Bible that follow immediately after the Torah, there are two versions of the story of the conquest that emerge. One is indeed that it was miraculous, that the country was handed to them by G-d on a silver platter. The most famous incident in this version is the conquest of Jericho which required no fighting. The people marched around the city blowing shofars until the walls “came tumbling down.”  However, elsewhere in the book of Joshua and even more so in the book of Judges, it is made clear that there were battles. The Israelites took possession of cities by means of military prowess on the part of the people and its military leaders who strategized attacks. Real battles took place. Courage and fortitude were requirements for taking possession of the promised land.

In addition to conquering the land, the Israelites needed to establish a government, which was no easy task. It actually took a couple of centuries to bring about until King Saul finally established a stable regime. And beyond this, the goal of building a society that would enshrine and incorporate the teachings of the Torah was also a demanding challenge.

Moses had to take a people who were raised in slavery and mold them into a nation that would be able to meet these challenges. This was the greatest test of his leadership. We see from the frustration he gave expression to in this week’s portion just how daunting that test was. He took us out of Egypt, he brought us to Mt. Sinai and taught us the Torah, but beyond even these enormous accomplishments of his leadership, Moses shaped the Jewish People into a nation that would possess the independence, the self- reliance and the self-government required for them to achieve their national goals.

Good Shabbos!

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