Judged by a Higher Standard

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, begins with Moshe recounting his intense plea to Hashem to be allowed to enter the Land. It is difficult to believe that the three great shepherds of Israel, Miriam, Aaron, and Moshe, who were responsible for leading them out of Egypt and guiding them in the Wilderness, were prevented from fulfilling the mitzvah of settling in Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe, who reached the highest level of prophecy ever to be attained by man, was punished for not sanctifying Hashem in the episode at Mei Meriva (Waters of Contention). He was commanded to speak to the rock so it would yield its waters. Instead, he used his staff and hit the rock twice, whereupon the waters came forth. For this infraction, he was punished by losing his privilege of joining in the conquest of the Land. 

This matter was a source of great pain to Moshe, and he repeatedly beseeched Hashem to rescind the harsh decree. As we study the story, we have difficulty comprehending it. There are no “saints” in the Torah. Even Moshe Rabbenu is human and subject to sin. Moshe was the most humble of men and did not seek to deny his failing. He did Teshuva (repentance) and prayed to be forgiven. If ever there was a person who was deserving of Divine Mercy, it was Moshe Rabbenu. Why did his prayers go unanswered? Why did Hashem tell him, “It is enough. Do not talk to Me any further about this matter”? 

In the past, Hashem had been very generous in granting Moshe’s requests for ever greater knowledge of Him and His “ways.” Yet, in this matter, there was no yielding from the severity of the judgment. What lessons can we learn from this?

A major teaching of Judaism is that the righteous are judged by different standards than ordinary mortals. Rabbi Soloveitchik says, “Responsibility is always measured by the greatness of the person. G-d told Moshe to address the rock, and he hit it. For the ordinary person, this would not have been a sin at all, or even if it had been considered a sin, the ordinary person would not have been punished the way Moshe was punished. Because Moshe was the leader, however, he should have been more careful.”

This is a very significant lesson that should have a chastening effect on all of us. Leaders must be extremely careful in the exercise of their leadership. The responsibility they have toward those they lead is very great. I do not believe that this applies only to great people like Moshe Rabbenu. Every one of us may view himself as a leader in a more restricted sense. 

The Rabbi has a responsibility toward his congregants, the teacher must be concerned about his students, the parent is looked up to by his children. Anyone who is in a position of authority and responsibility regarding the lives of others must take this charge very seriously. We are not judged by the same standard of strictness in all the areas of our activity. Perhaps, in matters pertaining purely to ourselves, when no other people will be affected by our lapses, the judgment will not be as harsh. However, we must assume a different attitude in those areas of our lives that will have a profound impact on others. 

We must be cognizant of the great responsibility that we have to others, especially those who look to us for guidance. This should constitute an additional incentive for us to increase our wisdom and improve our behaviors. It is incumbent on all of us to realize that people are not as inspired by the magnitude of our knowledge as by the purity of our deeds. We perpetuate the wisdom of Judaism, not only by instruction, but by incorporating it into our actions and general behavior. 

Unfortunately, we live in a time of immorality, when great leaders in all walks of life have become corrupted and committed great sins. This is true in the religious realm as well. Significant religious leaders have been caught up in terrible scandals. This appalling phenomenon has made its appearance in the Jewish world; we should not imagine that Jewish religious leadership is immune from disgrace. It is vitally important that we not be lax or lenient in excusing scandalous behavior in our religious leaders.

Hashem held Moshe to the highest possible standard and refused to indulge his momentary lapse, which could have been tolerated in someone of lesser stature. We must demand the same standards of our own contemporary leaders, especially the religious. As the Talmud teaches, “When it comes to desecration of G-d’s name, we show no respect to any Rav.” 

May Hashem’s name be magnified in His world, and may His chosen people be redeemed, speedily in our time.

Shabbat shalom.