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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Absolute Emunah as a Test and Prerequisite of National Leadership

Parshat Chukat recounts the episode of mei merivah which disqualified Moshe Rabbeinu from leading Am Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. While the precise transgression is ambiguous, even obscure, and subject to a wide range of different interpretations, the Torah does characterize and crystallize the decisive flaw that terminated his role. "Yaan asher lo heemantem bi le-hakdisheini le-einei Benei Yisrael lachein lo taviu et ha-kahal ha-zeh el haaretz asher natati lahem" (Bamidbar 20:12).

Elsewhere (TorahWeb 2008 - Kiddush Hashem as a Component of National Leadership), we have explored the impact of the lost opportunity for Kiddush Hashem on Moshe’s leadership credentials, but in conjunction with this motif the Torah does strikingly emphasize a failure of emunah, as well. Is it conceivable that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet and paradigm of "eved Hashem" was deficient in his faith? Indeed, the Malbim innovatively interprets ("lo heemantem") the flaw of "yaan asher lo heemantem bi" not as a failure of personal or even public faith, but as the squandered opportunity to inculcate, promote, or advance faith in others. According to this perspective, the primary transgression is that of Kiddush Hashem.

However, the Ibn Ezra projects the breakdown in emunah as a central feature. This position is reinforced by several gemarot, as well that focus on the words in the pasuk pertaining to an absence of emunah without also relating to the issue of Kiddush Hashem. The gemara in Shabbat 55b declares that there is no death without sin (ein mitah beli cheit) and that Moshe Rabbeinu is no exception to this rule based on the verse "yaan asher lo heemantem bi". The gemara in Yoma 86b contrasts the leadership styles of Moshe Rabbeinu and King David, noting that Moshe, in sharp contrast to David, encouraged the public exposure of his emunah violation (Moshe amar yichtov sirchoni she-nemar yaan asher lo heemantem bi). Similarly, the gemara (Yoma 87a) notes that had Moshe Rabbeinu stood the test of faith in this episode, he would not have been stripped of his leadership or died prematurely (ha heemantem bi adayin lo higia zemanchem lehipater min ha-olam ha-zeh).

How is it possible that Moshe Rabbeinu, whose absolute loyalty is unequivocally attested to by Hashem ("b-echol beiti neeman hu"), could have been flawed in the area of emunah? Moreover, Moshe Rabbeinu certainly did not simply ignore or defy Hashem's charge. Chazal and the various mefarshim invariably explain Moshe's thinking, the rationale for his conduct (see, for example, Rashi and Malbim). While Moshe evidently erred, possibly egregiously, how can an error be construed as a failing of faith?

Evidently, the character and intensity of emunah required of the single and singular leader who will facilitate the destiny of Klal Yisrael by leading them into Eretz Yisrael thereby cementing their status as an am Hashem, a mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh, is one that is absolute, instinctive, and uncompromising. This standard of faith demands a reflexive response to Hashem's command, even when that entails suspending judgment or eschewing the usual canons of logic and rationality, even as they are generally legitimately applied within the confines and context of religious belief. The fact that Moshe had a strong logical basis to reinterpret and adapt the tzivui Hashem rather than simply forthrightly implement it as commanded precisely tested this standard. In this case, Moshe was found wanting. This very basic, yet very elevated standard of emunah constitutes a prerequisite of quintessential national leadership. Profound yet simple emunah does not tolerate the slightest posturing, equivocation, wavering, or momentary lapses; it precludes even reservations or calculations that in other contexts are acceptable, even desirable.

This rigorous standard of emunah stems from the very origins of Jewish leadership, the persona of Avraham Avinu, the father of the nation (av hamon goyim). Avraham introduced the standard of intense, unqualified, and instinctive emunah and integrated it into the leadership profile of Klal Yisrael when he unequivocally and unreservedly accepted the apparently paradoxical promise that he would produce a great nation notwithstanding his age and the implications of his previous personal history. The Torah encapsulates this rigorous and spiritually ambitious perspective on emunah the very first time it introduces the term- "ve-hemin ba-Hashem vayachsheveha le-zedakah" (Bereishit 15;6). [See TorahWeb 2008 Avraham Avinu and the Concept of Emunah]

The fact that Avraham's manifestation of absolute emunah is preceded by an assertion regarding Jewish nationhood (15:5- "va-yotzei oto ha-chutzah vayomer habet na hashamaymah u-sefor ha-kochavim im tuchal lispor otam; vayomer lo koh yihiyeh zarecha"), and followed by the promise ofa national homeland in eretz yisrael (15:7- "vayomer eilav ani Hashem asher hotzeitzicha mei-Ur Kasdim latet lecha et ha-aretz hazot lerishtah") may further reinforce and illuminate the dire consequences of Moshe Rabbeinu's subtle but devastating lapse of absolute, instinctive and uncalculating emunah. Even the incomparable Moshe Rabbeinu was held to Avraham Avinu's pure and profound emunah standard with respect to national leadership and the establishment of Eretz Yisrael as the repository of Klal Yisrael. The special destiny of "am Hashem" in its national homeland would tolerate nothing less.

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