by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And G-d said to Moshe and Aharon, 'because you did not believe in me, to
sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, for this reason you
shall not bring this congregation to the Land which I have given to them...
Aharon will be gathered unto his people, because you defied My word at Mei
Merivah.'" [20:12, 24]
These words should strike us as not merely puzzling, but bizarre - it's
preposterous! Moshe, who ascended Har Sinai, spoke "face to face" (as it
were) with HaShem Himself, did not _believe_ in Him? Aharon, who directed
the Services in the Tabernacle, and caused the Divine Presence to descend
upon the camp, did not believe in G-d?
If someone were to read only this passage, he might think that HaShem was
accusing Moshe and Aharon of atheism or idolatry. Yet, obviously, this is
not so. In fact, the error of Moshe and Aharon was so subtle that we
perhaps cannot understand it - the Torah never specifies precisely what
they did wrong, and many of the commentators present various possibilities.
Our Sages say that HaShem "is as precise as a hair's breadth" with those
who are close to Him. Moshe and Aharon came so close to G-d that for them a
"sin" was something so small as to be beyond our perception, no more
comprehensible to our minds than microbes are visible to our eyes.
On Rosh HaShanah, there is a tradition to go to a body of water and "cast
off" one's sins, as it were, and ask that they be covered over like water
covers and hides the fish who swim within it. Many Chassidim have a custom
of to take bread crumbs along and throw them in, to give physical
expression to this idea.
There is a story which says that a particular Chassidic Rebbe threw crumbs
into the water, at which point one of his Chassidim bounded into the lake
and began to retrieve them. When questioned, the Chassid explained: "what
to the Rebbe are sins, are Mitzvos where I'm concerned!"
For years, I couldn't understand this story or its intended lesson. A
transgression is a transgression! But then, I heard that the Chofetz Chaim,
Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohein Kagan (perhaps the greatest known Torah
scholar of this century) once repented on Yom Kippur for having wasted
eight minutes from Torah study during the previous year.
Can we imagine wasting merely eight minutes in an entire year? I would be
extremely happy to say that I had managed to waste no more than eight
minutes on a given afternoon! Maybe, maybe I've spent a few hours without
wasting eight minutes. Maybe.
It's impossible to imagine being able to account for every moment of every
day, save eight minutes (I would almost be relieved to be told that I had
heard this story incorrectly). And this is what the Chassid was saying: for
us, it would be a great Mitzvah! The sins of great people occur at such a
level of precision, that _reaching_ that level, to be worthy of being
judged at that level, would be a phenomenal achievement.
The Torah itself, and the books of the Prophets as well, are replete with
similar stories of "grave sins" committed by our forebears - even as we are
told that these same individuals were extremely holy and pious, so close to
G-d as to receive Divine Prophecy. Just like Moshe and Aharon at Mei
Merivah, these stories are obviously not fictitious, but neither can they
be read "at face value" without comprehension - any more than we can refer
to a literal hand, arm, or face of G-d.
Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted
spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be
unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no
less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a great
crime like murder, adultery or idolatry - and thus the Prophets use severe
language, similar to HaShem's own words that Moshe and Aharon "did not
believe" in Him. Just like the anthropomorphic references to HaShem, these
passages use language which we can understand, so that we can learn from
Every human being is just that - human - and no one is perfect. Even as we
are humbled by recognition of the heights reached by prophets and great
scholars, we should never lose hope, or imagine that those who came close
to G-d were truly angels, without inner struggles or difficulties. This is
the lesson the Torah brings home to us when attributing unimaginable 'sins'
to our forebears. And yet it is also incumbent upon us to realize that we
could be, ourselves, so close to HaShem that our 'sins' would be something
we could not even recognize today.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Dedicated in loving memory of Chaya Freidel bas Shimon Pinchas, a"h.