The great man walks up to the plate with grim determination; the crowd waits, holding its collective breath. His teammates look up expectantly, quiet but completely confident. And the unthinkable happens. In the immortal words of Ernest Thayer:
"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright:
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere folks are laughing and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out."
If ever a "mighty" player deserved to lead the team to victory, it was Moses. But in this week's portion, Moses doesn't even strike out: At the bottom of the ninth inning, he is inexplicably banned from the ballpark. That's the shocker of Ha'azinu, this week's Torah portion.
Moses, the prophet who spoke "face to face" with God Almighty; Moses who dared to face down Pharaoh and free the enslaved Jewish people; Moses who persevered 40 years in the wilderness through drought, war, rebellion, and famine; this man is forbidden from guiding his people into the land that God has granted them. Moses' destiny is to remain forever outside the Promised Land, his grave unmarked and unknown. "Unfair" is too mild an adjective to describe the situation.
The Torah doesn't mince words. God says to Moses, "You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin...for you broke faith with Me in front of the Israelite people at the waters of Meribat-kadesh...by failing to sanctify Me among the Israelites. You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter" (Deuteronomy 32:50-52). Generations of Torah readers have puzzled over this unexpected turn of events.
What happened at Meribat-kadesh (Numbers 20) to justify such a terrible fate? There was a water shortage. God told Moses to verbally order a rock to yield water. Moses struck the rock, and out came water. God became upset and accused Moses of faithlessness. Most traditional commentators explain that God's anger is over the lack of trust demonstrated by striking the rock instead of commanding it. Seems like a pretty minor breach of faith to me. After a lifetime of risking everything to serve God, Moses will experience the ultimate exile because he hit a rock? Let's face it, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.
I think perhaps this Torah portion is less purely punitive than its own language suggests. Moses retires from leadership at a pivotal moment in Jewish history.
The Hebrews have survived in the barren Sinai for 40 years. The old generation has died and a new generation come of age. The people are about to enter a new phase of Jewish communal life. The Jews will become the nation of Israel, a nation of land-owning farmers and small shopkeepers, not nomads or slaves. What kind of leadership is appropriate for this new country? Perhaps the incident at Meribat-kadesh is a metaphor about governance styles. Moses is forced to renounce his authority because his method of leadership is no longer appropriate.
Moses is something of a hothead. When he was a young man, he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. During the sojourn in the Sinai, Moses frequently became exasperated with the people. He had to support God in killing hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews in order to enforce his authority. Moses is forceful, confident, even a little arrogant. Moses strikes rocks; he doesn't talk to them. This is the kind of leader required to revolt against the might of Egypt and survive the hardship of wandering. But is this best for a settled agricultural society?
Ha'azinu recounts the end of an era. It is the penultimate portion of the Torah; the great sacred narrative of Torah has reached its climax. The new generation will occupy the land of Judah. They will spread out and thrive for hundreds of years, but Moses will not be with them. It is time for a less revolutionary leader, someone younger and more circumspect, a person who is able to follow as well as lead, to compromise as well as confront. That person is Joshua, not Moses.
This happens to all of us at one point or another in our lives, though we hope not as dramatically or finally as in the story of Moses. Circumstances change, or we do. Moses doesn't strike out, rather he's no longer in the right game. Seasons turn, summer becomes autumn, a New Year is upon us, and there is a new arena, even for the greatest of players.