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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Kiddush Hashem as a Component of National Leadership

The episode of the mei merivah which precluded Moshe Rabbeinu's entry into Eretz Yisrael and prematurely ended his leadership role was a pivotal moment in the national life of Klal Yisrael. Many of the mefarshim elaborate the dire consequences that followed from the irrevocable loss of Moshe's singular spiritual leadership precisely when the nation was to achieve its destiny in its homeland. And yet, the details of Moshe's failing as reported in the Torah are enveloped in mystery or at least in obscurity. We are merely informed that "yaan lo heemantem bi le-hakdisheini le-einei Benei Yisrael lakhein lo taviu et ha-kahal ha-zeh el ha-aretz asher natati la-hem" (Bamidbar 20:12) - a lack of emunah (faith) and failure to seize the opportunity of national kiddush Hashem disqualified Moshe's future leadership role. Almost every major commentator has a different perspective on this climactic transgression. The Ohr haChayim counts no fewer than ten views on the matter before contributing his own analysis! Why would the Torah obfuscate such a crucial event?

We encounter a parallel phenomenon with respect to the sudden tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon. The Torah reports their transgression by invoking or alluding to apparently varying, even competing factors - ketoret zarah, shetuyei yayin, etc. The midrash and mefarshim in that context, too, provide a wide range of explanations. It is noteworthy that some mefarshim (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 20:13) link the final words of the mei merivah story - "va-yekadesh bam" with the concluding depiction of the Nadav and Avihu tragedy- "ki bekrovai akadesh"(Vayikra 10:3).

Perhaps in both cases, the Torah deemphasizes the actual infraction in order to accentuate the larger spiritual failing. With regard to Nadav and Avihu, it was the principle of religious subjectivism, the notion that in spiritual matters one may legitimately operate outside the structure of the revealed framework of the norm, that demanded emphatic rejection and harsh punishment. The various factors hinted at in the Torah's account and enumerated in the mefarshim reflect this common denominator. The flaw of mei merivah, as well, significantly transcended the specific crime. Indeed, the Torah's account, attributing the severe Divine decree to a failure of faith and spiritual opportunity, should be perceived not merely as a general postscript but as a precise and trenchant critique. Perhaps the Torah did not elaborate the actual transgression and practices intentional ambiguity lest the more fundamental root cause of Moshe's deficiency become obscured.

Moreover, it is vital that the Torah focus on the deeper implications of Moshe's miscalculation to justify the severe consequence and implications of his loss of leadership. It is noteworthy that the term "kahal" pervades this entire episode. From the beginning of the crisis - "va-yikahalu al Moshe ve-al Aharon" (Bamdibar 20:2) - until the denouement - "lakhen lo taviu et ha-kahal ha-zeh el ha-aretz asher natati la-hem" (20:12), this term is used in every other verse (20:2,4,6,8,10, 12)! The Torah may be hinting that the inability to seize the opportunity for national kiddush Hashem in a situation in which Benei Yisrael sought national leadership ("va-yikahalu") and had begun to identify with their national destiny (20-:4-"ve-lamah heiveitem et kehal Hashem"), albeit imperfectly and in a manner suffused with confusion and anxiety, signaled the need for new leadership upon entry into Eretz Yisrael, the geographic fulfillment of "kahal" (see Horayot 3a). Thus, Moshe's disqualification may have been as much a consequence of his unsatisfactory leadership response as it was a punishment.

The Torah conveys a further insight when it links the incapacity to respond to the opportunity of kiddush Hashem with a failure of faith ("yaan lo heemantem bi"). The Ibn Ezra (20:12) particularly equates these two values. This perspective highlights the approach of halachic thought to the relationship of action and belief. Kiddush Hashem is not merely the ability to rise to a dramatic challenge. The kiddush Hashem response should ideally reflect deep faith, firm conviction, and consistency of belief. This is true conversely, as well. Thus, Moshe and Aharon's missed opportunity in the mei merivah episode is assigned greater significance.   

Furthermore, the capacity to inspire others by means of kiddush Hashem is a prerequisite for Torah leadership. The Talmud (Yoma 86a) records the special obligation and responsibility of scholars to conduct and comport themselves in a manner which intensifies love of Hashem ("she-yehei sheim shamayim mitahev al yadekha") and enhances the sanctification of His name. The Rambam begins his chapter on kiddush Hashem (chapter 5 of Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah) by addressing every member of the nation ("kol Beit Yisrael"), but concludes by noting the more ubiquitous and more demanding responsibility of spiritual leaders. Only by accentuating the severity of the breach of this crucial principle and leadership component can its value and primacy be restored. Great men suffer inordinately when they fail to rise to the challenge of kiddush Hashem, the very theme that defines their stature, as a means of neutralizing the abuse itself. In this way, "va-yekadesh bam" (20:13), the final words in the chapter of mei merivah (as do "bekrovai akadesh" regarding Nadav and Avihu) constitute the ultimate affirmation of kiddush Hashem, a fitting legacy for Moshe and Aharon (according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra's previously cited reading although not precisely as Rashi interprets).  

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