So many fascinating and oft-cited things happen in this parasha, Parashat VaEtchanan: Moshe recaps the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), and describes the unforgettable scene in which the People received the Torah and when “Face to face God spoke with you” (Deut. 5:4). He gives the Children of Israel the the desperate and powerful outcry, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” (Deut. 6:4), and further tells the People that they have an obligation to love God, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5), rather than just passively observing that He is One.
But these issues, while absolutely fascinating, and a discussion for another time, are hogging the attention of this parasha in which there is so much more that we can glean.
It is the first Aliyah of this parasha — the first few p’sukim specifically — that attracts my attention most prominently:
(1) And I requested of God in that moment, saying: (2) Lord God, You began by showing Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; who else in the Heavens or on the Earth could do as Your deeds and as Your courage? (3) Let me pass so I may see the good land that is across the Jordan, this good mountain, and Lebanon. (4) And God was angry with me because of you, and he did not listen to me; and God said to me, “Be satisfied, do not continue to talk to me about this issue. (5) Go up to the top of that mountain, and lift your eyes west, north, south, and east, and see it with your eyes, for you will not cross this Jordan River. (6) And command Joshua, and make him stronger and give him courage, for he will cross before this nation, and he will guide them in the land that you will see.
Now, we are to understand that the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy, is Moshe’s commentary on the events recounted in the four preceding books. But look at what Moshe says: “God will not let me cross the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, and it is all your fault! God was angry with me because of you!” Moshe still does not assume his own responsibility of hitting the rock to get water instead of talking to it as God had commanded him.
But was Moshe’s indiscretion so bad that he deserved to die? We know from the midrash that no one who came out of Egypt was supposed to enter the land of Israel, but Moshe’s plight seems to be framed as a punishment. Moreover, is he correct in saying that his death will be on the hands of the Nation?
Let us take a brief look at two previous instances when God employed the death penalty: First, Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:1-3); second, Korach and his followers (Num. 16:1-18:32).
Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, brought a “strange fire” onto God’s altar on the day the Children of Israel dedicated the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Because of their action, they were immediately struck down, so suddenly that the Torah takes only three p’sukim to describe the entire incident. The words “strange fire,” in Hebrew “אש זרה,” only appear in the Torah in the context of Nadav and Avihu’s transgression, so we can not be entirely sure of its meaning. However, it was possible that Kohanim made mistakes in their Korbanot long after Nadav and Avihu: what did they do to deserve death? Hold that thought.
Korach, a Levite who was unhappy with the political structure of the Israelite nation, staged a revolt against Moshe, to try to overturn the leadership and to assume that position for himself. Sure, he tried to assassinate the Divinely chosen leader, but he and all of his followers were punished from Shamayim. Did they merit death? Of course they did. As did Nadav and Avihu, and Moshe.
How do I figure? What do all these events have in common?
Public distrust of God.
In Korach’s case, it’s easy to explain. Korach staged a rebellion against a Divinely-erected government, and convinced others to follow his example. In a fledgling society that was heavily dependent on its leaders for continuity and strength, and that was moreso dependent on God to lead them on the right path, to try to overthrow the political structure was to doubt God in front of all the People. This was not an act that was tolerated.
Nadav and Avihu are a bit more complicated, but in the same vein. Put simply, Nadav and Avihu’s transgression happened on the day when God had said that He would bring fire down from Heaven to consume the sacrifices. On this day, a day in which all eyes were towards the Kohanim and on the new Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu brought this “strange fire,” or fire that had not come from Heaven. “Strange fire” implies a doubt toward the capability of God to bring fire from Heaven, and as all the people of Israel were watching, it shows a public doubt of the capabilities of God.
By now you can surely see where I’m going. In this week’s parasha, Moshe blames the Children of Israel for his impending death, and perhaps he is correct; in any case, though, they don’t really deserve Moshe’s wrath. Moshe’s ultimate mistake — and it was an honest mistake — was not merely that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, but that he did it le’einei kol ha’am, in view of the whole nation. Everyone knew that God had told Moshe to speak to the rock, and they all saw him hit it in a time of weakness. Sure, he was still human, and humans make mistakes, but Moshe did it le’einei kol ha’am.
In the end, the most important thing to learn from Moshe’s anger — misplaced or not, you decide — is to monitor the kind of person you are when everyone can see you. Whether you mean to or not, the people around you do not see your thought process. They can not read your mind, they can not feel your feelings, but they can see what you do. You are most often a personal example for others when you are not conscious that they are watching.
And though I began by denouncing the incessant drashing of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma in this parasha, my point is the essence of why they are all together in one week: in the first aliyah of VaEtchanan, you learn that you must be a personal example when in the public light. By the fifth aliyah, you must be reminded of what the mitzvot are that you are meant to keep, and by the sixth aliyah, you are ready to impart that knowledge to your children and to those around you, and to be a passive example, a beacon to those struggling around you, with t’fillin and mezuzah.