וידבר ד’ אל משה לאמר: נקום נקמת בני ישראל מאת המדינים, אחר תאסף אל עמך
And God spoke to Moshe saying: Avenge the vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites, after which you shall pass on.
In instructing Moshe to launch retaliatory action against Midian, God makes a point of informing him that his death would follow shortly thereafter. The linking of these two events by none other than God, suggests an affiliation which runs deeper than mere chronology. Indeed, Chazal tell us that God was actually making Moshe’s death contingent upon his taking up arms against Midian. Thus, Chazal commend Moshe for launching the war without delay, despite the fact that he could have gained some precious time by stalling.
Yet what did Moshe’s death have to do with the war on Midian? Why could his own passing not take place until he had successfully avenged Midian’s crimes against the Israelites?
To answer these questions, we must look back to the original circumstances which led God to bar Moshe from entering the Land and decree upon him an early death. Although the precise cause is a matter of great debate among the early commentators, both Rashi and Rambam seem to be of the position that Moshe’s “sin” at Meriva was related to an unwarranted display of anger.
It has therefore been suggested that it was incumbent upon Moshe, prior to departing this world, to rectify his actions by channeling that very anger toward a cause which truly warranted righteous indignation- the avenging of Midian’s hideous crimes against God and His nation.
Yet the question still lingers: Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for Moshe to rectify his actions by engaging in some form of nature-defying act of anger suppression, rather than give expression to the very trait with which he sinned, albeit in constructive fashion?
The highest form of perfection lies not in learning to suppress the traits which drive us to negativity, but in gaining control over those traits so that we may maneuver them at will, rather than be maneuvered by them. Suppressing the trait of anger, or any other trait for that matter, is far easier than utilizing it while retaining full control over the parameters of its implementation. Were he to have merely suppressed his anger, Moshe would have thus fallen short of true rectification. . It was only by re-calibrating his anger that he was able to die a man with his every trait in order, fully expressive of all that God sought to express in Creation.
We must learn to streamline, rather than stifle,
fine-tuning our traits, trifle by little trifle.
אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן
‘וַיִּכְתּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם עַל־פִּי ד
These are the travels of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt led by Moshe and Aharon. And Moshe wrote the goings of their travels as dictated to him by God.
These two opening verses of Parshas Ma’asei contain two passages we should find very puzzling. Firstly, why does the Torah tell us that the travels are those of the Israelites who left Egypt? Don’t we know that the Israelites left Egypt? What relevance does this seemingly obvious information have to our Parsha? Secondly, what is meant by stating that Moshe recorded the travels as dictated by God? Doesn’t that hold true for the entire Torah? What was so unique about Moshe writing the travels over his authoring of the entire Torah?
Malbim offers a novel interpretation of the aforementioned verses. The first verse must be read as follows: These are the travels of the Israelites through which they left Egypt. He explains that even after physically leaving the land of Egypt, the Israelites needed extensive therapy to cleanse them of the Egyptian culture they had become accustomed to. As one sage put it, ‘It is far easier to take the Jew out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jew’. Malbim likens this process to one who is forced to relocate from a fiercely cold climate to a hot desert. Were he to make the move suddenly he would become violently ill. He must rather gradually accustom himself to warmer climates by slowly making his way from one extreme of the climate spectrum to the other. He may very likely ask his doctor to draw up a travel itinerary to help his body healthily make the transition. Such says Malbim, was the nature of the Israelites transition from Egypt to the land of Israel. Egypt and its decadent culture were the polar opposite of the Promised Land and its intrinsic holiness. For the Jewish nation to have made the transition without proper preparation would have been disastrous. It was crucial for the Israelites to slowly emerge from the Egyptian culture and ease themselves into the spiritual environment of Israel for their eventual entry and settlement in the Promised Land to be sustainable. This was the nature of their travels in the desert, which followed an itinerary crafted by God specifically so as to accomplish this objective. Hence, the second verse which states that Moshe wrote down their travels as per God’s instructions refers not to the recording of their travels in the Torah, but rather to the original writing of their itinerary as dictated by God; a prescription of sorts by the Master Doctor, God.
When faced with the gravity of our sins and foibles, we are often tempted to make drastic, sudden changes to our lives. We work ourselves into a frenzy, and act like saints… for a few days. Yet inevitably, we fall back on our old habits, reverting to the lowly state we were so determined to bid farewell to forever. We get dejected. We wonder what went wrong. The answer is simple: Change does not come overnight. Change that does come overnight, is gone by dusk. Sudden, drastic change is unsustainable, and is therefore not asked of us. We are no better than the greatest generation in our history, the generation of the Exodus. We, just like they, must slowly make our way, tedious as it may be, up the ladder of spiritual growth, step by little step. Yes, there may be little instant gratification. Yes, it may feel excruciatingly slow. Yet if we are to emerge healthy, stable individuals, made of lasting spiritual greatness, it is a journey we cannot afford to circumvent.