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The Unbearable Heaviness
of Being Moshe


 (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)


New books should represent new opportunities, new beginnings. The book of Devarim, however, is not a case in point. It begins with a retrospective, telling the sad tale of how we had arrived at that particular place and time. It recounts forfeited opportunities, and tells the story of how defeat eclipsed victory.

The march to Israel could have been completed decades earlier, yet here they are, so many years later, still outside the Land of Israel. Indeed, the Land of Israel and the frustrated and frustrating mission to get there are the backdrop of the first chapter of the new book: An eleven-day journey mutated into a forty-year sojourn. (Devarim 1:2)

In his address to the nation, Moshe hints that the sin of the golden calf was the initial reason the enterprise was delayed: "The Almighty, our God, spoke to us at Horev, saying, 'You have remained near this mountain too long.'" (Devarim 1:11) Nonetheless, most of the chapter is dedicated to retelling, from Moshe's perspective, the episode that was the direct cause for the delay: the sin of the spies. As a result of this sin, and not the golden calf, the generation that left Egypt was sentenced to death in the desert; the Land of Israel would elude their grasp.

As Moshe retells the events, he mentions his own punishment in the same context:

When God heard the tone of your words, He was angered, and He swore, 'No man of this evil generation will see the good land that I swore to give your fathers. The only exception will be Calev son of Yefuneh; he will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he walked, because he followed God wholeheartedly.' God also displayed anger at me because of you [and] He said, 'You too will not enter [the land]. Yehoshua son of Nun, who stands before you, will be the one to enter; strengthen him, for he will apportion [the Land] to the [people of] Israel. (Devarim 1:34-38)

This seems like a strange way to remember the events; when the sin of the spies was first recorded in the Torah, in the 13th chapter of the previous book, no mention was made of a punishment for Moshe. Rather, as every reader of the Torah knows, Moshe and Aharon were punished for a different episode altogether: At Marah, they were instructed to coax water from the rock by speaking to it. When they failed to follow the instructions they had been given, their punishment was meted out:

With that, Moshe raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. A huge amount of water gushed out, and the community and their animals were able to drink. God said to Moshe and Aharon, 'You did not have enough faith (h'emantem) in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites! Therefore, you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given you.' (Bamidbar 20:11-12)

God finds Moshe guilty of a "lack of faith," of all things; this is his "sin," and not complicity in the evil report of the spies. We may say, then, that emunah - belief, faith - is the key to understanding Moshe's punishment, as well as his own pronouncement that he was condemned because of the sin of spies.

From the very beginning of Moshe's mission, he hesitated; he doubted whether the people would have emunah in him - whether they would have faith in him as an emissary of God. (See Shmot, chapter 4) Later, when Amalek attacked, Moshe stood on the mountain in prayer, and his arms are described as agents of emunah:

As long as Moshe held his hands up, Israel would prevail, but as soon as he let his hands down, the battle would go in Amalek's favor. When Moshe's' hands became weary, they took a stone and placed it under him, so that he would be able to sit on it. Aharon and Hur then held his hands, one on each side, and his hands remained emunah (faithful) until sunset. (Shmot 17:11,12)

When Moshe lifts his hands toward heaven, when he reminds them to put their faith in God, the people of Israel are victorious; when his hands are lowered, they are vulnerable. Moshe provides inspiration, but he needs support; he serves as a beacon of emunah - but his relationship with the Jewish People is reciprocal: Moshe is supported by the People of Israel (through their representatives, Aharon and Hur), just as they are supported by him. He instills emunah in the nation, just as he draws his strength from their emunah, from their faith in him as an emissary of God.

In the first verses of the speech with which he begins the book of Devarim, Moshe mentions an earlier episode, in which he had voiced his own need for support:

See! I have placed the land before you. Come, occupy the land that God swore He would give to your fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and to their descendants after them.' At that time, I said to you, 'I cannot lead you all by myself...but how can I [alone] bear the burden, the responsibility, and your infighting, on my own? (Devarim 1:8-12)

Moshe's reference is to an episode recounted in the book of B'midbar:

Moshe said to God: Why have You made things so bad for me? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You have burdened me with this entire nation? Did I conceive this nation? Did I give birth to them, that You have instructed me to carry them in my bosom, as a nurse (ha'omain) carries an infant [until we come] to the land that You swore to their ancestors. Where will I get enough meat to give all these people? They are whining to me to give them some meat to eat. I cannot be solely responsible for this entire nation! It is too heavy a burden for me! If You are going to do this to me, just do me a favor and kill me! Don't let me see myself get into such a terrible predicament (B'midbar 11:11-15)

The word emunah means faith or belief, but it can also mean stability and instruction. Surely, it is no coincidence that various forms of this word appear at critical junctures in Moshe's life: At the burning bush, on the mountain during the war against Amalek, as he leads the nation away from Mount Sinai, and again when he strikes the rock.

It seems that Moshe's job, indeed, is to be the omain - to provide instruction, to inspire, and to teach emunah. But there seems to be a symbiotic element in this relationship: The nation must be receptive. Aharon and Hur must support Moshe's arms, to express the support of the entire nation for Moshe's leadership. The nation, on the battlefield as in every other aspect of life, draws strength from Moshe, yet they shore up Moshe's strength as well. When Moshe feels completely alone and isolated, he tells God that he cannot do the job singlehandedly. God agrees; He tells Moshe that others will help shoulder the burden. God provides Moshe with others who will interface with the nation, bringing Moshe's inspiration to them and in turn re-energizing Moshe himself - much as Aharon and Hur did during the battle.

During the sin of the spies, the men appointed to share the leadership role failed miserably. Instead of uplifting and inspiring the people and reinforcing their emunah, they instilled fear and undermined the nation's emunah. Instead of coming to Moshe's aid and playing a supporting role in preparation for the next stage in the nation's history, they acted as a fifth column and undermined Moshe's ability to lead. Therefore, as Moshe retells the story of the spies, he points out what they really accomplished: They left Moshe to stand alone, as a leader without support. They did not "hold up his arms," and therefore Moshe, too, failed: The people did not receive the lesson in emunah they needed in order to enter the Land of Israel. The spies' lack of faith spread throughout the camp:

You said ... 'Where are we headed? Our brothers took away our courage by telling us that they saw there a race that was larger and taller than we, with great cities fortified to the skies, as well as children of the giants.' I said to you, 'Don't be so impressed! Don't be afraid of them! The Almighty God is going before you. He will fight for you, just as you watched Him do in Egypt. In the desert, you [also] saw that Almighty God carried you along the road you traveled to this place, just as a man carries his son. But now, here, you have no emunah in the Almighty, your God! (Devarim 1: 28-32)

The tragedy of the sin of the spies, then, is not only the time that had been wasted, nor is it only the resulting forty years of wandering in the desert. It is not even the demise of an entire generation that would never see the Land of Israel. The tragedy is even greater: In addition to everything else that it caused, in the sin of the spies the nation forfeited Moshe and his unique leadership.

The Jews would enter the land with a new leader, Yehoshua, who first gained his reputation as the man who led the battle against Amalek while Moshe prayed and inspired and taught emunah from atop the mountain. If the people could not support and be inspired by a teacher who lived and taught emunah, they would have to conquer the land under a more down-to-earth leader who fought battles the conventional way: with swords, in grueling combat. Had the nation been inspired by Moshe's arms, had they given Moshe the support he needed in order to lead, the conquest of Israel would have been of a completely different nature; all that was needed was emunah. Instead, Moshe's arms became unbearably heavy; he bore the weight of leadership singlehandedly, and his emunah was not reciprocated. The opportunity to conquer and settle the land under his spiritual leadership was squandered.

For more in depth study, see:


About the Author     Rabbi Ari Kahn

Rabbi Ari Kahn received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary where he studied with Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He graduated Yeshiva University with a BA in psychology and an MS degree in Talmud.

He is Director of Foreign Student Programs at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where he also is a senior lecturer in Jewish studies.

He is a renowned speaker, and has lectured worldwide. Having authored hundreds of articles on the weekly parasha and holidays with a readership in excess of 10,000, Rabbi Kahn is also the author of Explorations, an in-depth analysis of the weekly Torah reading, and Emanations, an in-depth analysis of the Jewish holidays. A new series - "Echoes of Eden" is currently in progress. This is a projected 5 volume set to be published by the OU and Gefen Publishing. The first three volumes are in print and the fourth is in production.

Drawing upon the vast reservoir of rabbinic literature – from Talmud to Midrash, from Zohar to the chassidic masters – Rabbi Kahn combines the mystical explorations of kabbala and chassidism with a highly-intellectual and broad-minded approach to Torah study. He applies psychology, literature and Jewish history to the understanding of esoteric midrashim and the Zohar. Five volumes of "Explorations" have been published in French. He has lived in Israel since 1984 with his wife Naomi and 5 children.


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