The Last Mission

Rabi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Among the myriad events in this week’s parshiyos, we are brought face to face with impending death of Moshe, leader of the Jewish people. The Torah presents this end in a very subtle manner, tying it to one last commandment for Moshe to complete. Through a profound commentary by the Ramban we in fact see some fascinating ideas emerging about Moshe’s leadership and the mindset of the tzadik.

God commands Moshe to finish off the Midianites (Bamidbar 31:2):

Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people."

The phrase “gathered to your people” references Moshe’s death (as used with others in the Torah). In other words, this was to be Moshe’s last assignment, the last opportunity to fulfill a command from God.

The Ramban offers a commentary on this final edict:

It was decreed upon our teacher Moses not to cross over the Jordan, but on the other [eastern] side of the Jordan he fulfilled all the commandments [that were necessary] for Israel. Thus he conquered the two great Amorite kings, and divided their land up as an inheritance, and it was he who was worthy of executing vengeance upon the enemies of the Eternal, leaving Joshua only the commandment of [conquering and dividing] the Land. Furthermore, [this commandment was given to Moses because] the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him honor so that the ‘righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance’, this being the meaning of ‘afterward shall you be gathered unto your people’

There are two reasons presented for the connection between the destruction of the Midianites and the last commandment given to Moshe. The first seems to indicate that this fit into the overall responsibilities of Moshe’s leadership. The second reason the Ramban writes has to do with a special honor afforded Moshe.

Each of these reasons is slightly problematic when taken at face value. The verse clearly indicates that this was Moshe’s last mission. The Ramban implies that for Yehoshua to take on this task would somehow be additional to his mission. Yehoshua was “limited” to what is known as kibush haaretz, the conquering and dividing up of Eretz Yisrael. Why was it so important to have Moshe complete this final mission against the Midianites? From a strictly leadership standpoint, why not transition the leadership at an earlier stage? Take the American presidency as an example. A new president is elected in November, but he does not take over the White House for several months. This allows for a period of transition, to ease the new leader into his role. One can see this as well in the workings of a large corporation. Generally speaking, a new CEO does not just enter in without experience or knowledge of the company. Ideally, he is groomed for the role, given tasks and responsibilities, until he is ready to take over the business. The Ramban, though, emphasizes that this was not to be a drawn out succession process. Instead, it was abrupt, a clear delineation between the leadership of Moshe and Yehoshua. Why was this so important?

We also must understand the second reason posited by the Ramban. When one thinks of the term vengeance, one would normally associate such a concept with being “bad” – it does not connote to the average person a sense of a noble virtue. Here, though, we are being taught that the tzadik, the righteous individual, gets some sort of great satisfaction from being able to participate in this type of God-directed event. How is this possible?

Looking at the structure of the two answers, we can establish an overall differentiation between them. The first answer seems to be focused on Moshe as the leader of the Jewish people. The importance of his completion of the mission is directly related to his leadership. The second though is more interested in Moshe as a person. There seems to be a unique perfection open to Moshe, a chance to reach a higher level.

This differentiation helps us now delve into the deeper idea behind each of these reasons. On one level, one can surmise that this simply was the last task of this great leader. The Ramban though is emphasizing a different point. Moshe completed all the commandments, or mitzvos, that he could prior to entering Eretz Yisrael. As we know, the punishment for Moshe’s sin was his barring from entering Eretz Yisrael. It was critical that while this was his fate, his leadership had to be viewed as complete. To die before any mission was not completed before the Jewish people’s crossing of the Jordan would be perceived more than simply an incomplete leadership. The punishment would be viewed as coming to fruition prior to the last moment before he could enter the land. In other words, a balancing act of sorts was at play here. On the one hand, Moshe could not enter Eretz Yisrael due to the edict from God. On the other, it was imperative that this punishment be executed at the last possible time before the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael. Moshe essentially did everything possible to ensure they were indeed ready. The last major action required was the annihilation of the Midianites. After this, the Jewish people would be prepared to now enter Eretz Yisrael. Thus, one could say that Moshe’s punishment was tied to the completion of everything that was necessary prior to the crossing of the Jordan. Had his death occurred with remaining work to be done, the perception would have been that the punishment against Moshe was more inclusive than not entering Eretz Yisrael with the Jewish people; he would be viewed as not even completing his leadership tasks. Yehoshua’s leadership was therefore “limited” to simply that which Moshe could not on his own bring about. We now see the importance of this delineation between the two leaders, and how a transition any time prior to the Jews’ readiness to cross the Jordan would lead to a distortion.

The second reason presented by the Ramban has to do with the tzadik’s joy and happiness when he gets to engage in God’s vengeance. Above, we presented the question in terms of the associating of vengeance with a negative concept. There is another question one could ask. Why would a tzadik be any happier involved with this then with any other commandment from God? Isn’t a trait of the tzadik the tremendous happiness he feels when he is engaged in following the derech Hashem? The key to understanding this lies in the present application of vengeance. One of the critical concepts associated with the performance of mitzvos is the natural kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of God’s name, that emerges. No doubt, this should bring about a sense of happiness. However, the situation of the Midianites was different. They brought about a desecration of the name of God. Their seduction of the Jewish people, leading them down the path of pure instinct and idolatry, was an action that resulted in chillul Hashem. The Jewish people were no longer capable of fulfilling their role – they were a compromised nation. This state by definition is a chillul Hashem, and this is what draws God’s ire and demand for vengeance. Thus, the tzadik sees this situation as one where he can correct the defect, wash away the stain of desecration and replace it with the sanctification of God. What greater joy then to help bring this state about? The idea of this unique honor, as the Ramban puts it, becomes clear. It is in line with the greatness that Moshe personified.