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July 23, 2010 4:59 pm

Va’etchanan: Let Us Dream Together

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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“Too much for you!”

In the beginning of this week’s portion (Vaeschanan), Moses beseeches G-d to allow him entry into the Promised Land. “Please let me cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, the Good Mountain and Lebanon.”

But G-d refuses. “G-d became angry with me because of you and He did not listen to me. G-d said to me, ‘This is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me further about this matter.'”

Instead, G-d tells Moses: “Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan.”

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The Midrash, sensitive to the nuances of biblical verbiage, picks up on G-d’s expression to Moses, “This is too much for you,” or in the original Hebrew, “rav lach.” What is the message behind these words? And why were they necessary?

In the classical midrashic style of interpretation, the Midrash focuses our attention to the fact that none other than Moses himself used these exact words — this is too much for you — some four decades earlier, during the mutiny of Korach.

As we recall from the book of Numbers, a Levite by the name of Korach together with 250 leaders of the community staged a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. These men protested the hierarchy among the Israelite community. “The entire congregation is holy,” they said, “why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of G-d?!”

Aaron served as the Kohen Gadol, the high priest of Israel, the holiest position within the Jewish people. Korach and his colleagues were Levites or Israelites, who did not possess the same level of sanctity as Aaron and thus could not perform the same services in the Tabernacle. In effect, Korach and his 250 partners demanded that they, too, be granted the status of Kohanim Gedolim, of spiritual princes, performing the holiest divine service in the Holy Temple.

Moses responded that it was not he who chose his brother Aaron as the high priest of Israel; it was G-d who conferred upon Aaron these responsibilities.

And then Moses continued with the fateful words: “Too much for you, sons of Levi!” (In the original Hebrew: “rav lachem benei Levi.”) What Moses was saying was that the Levites were asking for too much; they ought to be satisfied with what they had and not ask for more.

Virtue Or Vice?

In a deeply perplexing interpretation, the Midrash comments that since Moses employed this expression when speaking to his adversaries, G-d, too, employed these identical words toward him when denying him the merit to enter into the Holy Land. In the words of the midrash: “With the stick that Moses struck them, he too was struck.”

This is difficult to understand. It would seem from this midrashic commentary that Moses committed an offense when he used these words against Korach and his colleagues, and, as a result, G-d reciprocated this firm expression to Moses when he was pleading to enter the Land of Israel. Yet the biblical account makes it clear that Moses’ rebuke of his adversaries was just. G-d Himself punished them severely. Moses was chastising individuals who were rebelling against the instructions he received from G-d that Aaron ought to be the exclusive High Priest of the Jewish people. Yet the Midrash intimates that Moses’ dialogue with Korach was flawed (flawed, obviously, relative to the elevated level of Moses).

We are compelled to reach this conclusion: What was wrong with Moses’ words was not his criticizing Korach and his 250 partners; as we recall, G-d Himself unequivocally embraced Moses’ position. The rebels suffered a tragic fate. Rather, it was Moses’ particular expression to them, “Too much for you, sons of Levi!” that is perceived as wanting.

But why?

The Dreams

It is here that we are introduced once more to the layers of subtlety that define the text of the Hebrew Bible. On one level we may read about a sin, and on another level, the midrashic tradition will convey the subtle and complex motivations behind that sin. The moral path is not always black and white. The Kotzker Rebbe once remarked to a self-righteous individual, “from the sins of the Jews in the desert the Almighty constructed His blueprint for life; from your mitzvos a Torah will not be composed.”

The Jews who staged the mutiny against Moses and Aaron were not simple sinners and lowly rabble-rousers, or radical egocentrics craving power and control. Behind their unjustified rebellion lay a noble dream. These individuals yearned to be elevated to the spiritual level of Aaron and experience, like the High Priest of Israel, intimacy with the Divine. They craved to transcend the limits of their identities and become spiritual giants.

Their rebellion was a mistake, but the passion behind it was noble. They wished to break out of the borders of their psyches and enter into the metaphysical “promised land” of holiness. In the expression of one of the rabbinic mystics, they pined to “kiss the divine”.

Moses was swift to condemn not only their mutiny but also the dream that birthed it. “Too much for you, sons of Levi!” he exclaimed. Your imagination must have limits; you ought to recognize who you are and not dream of possibilities beyond your capabilities.

But Moses also had a dream that could not be realized. He, too, yearned to enter into a Promised Land. It was not the falafel and tehinah in Israel that attracted Moses; it was the holiness of the land he yearned to experience. Just like Korach’s colleagues, his, too, was a noble dream, but one that could not be realized in reality.

So the borders Moses imposed upon others were imposed upon him, some 40 years later. His response to Korach’s men “Too much for you, sons of Levi” generated the identical response from G-d: “This is too much for you.”

Sail Away From Safety

The Midrash is, perhaps, teaching us this lesson: We ought not to put reins on our or other people’s dreams, because dreams and aspirations are the progenitors of discovery and transformation. Fear or narrow vision ought not to obstruct the pathways of imagination. We should encourage our students and our children to allow their dreams to soar. Sure, not all of our dreams can be fulfilled. But to cease dreaming out of fear of disappointment is to deny the gift of freedom G-d has bestowed upon us.

Or as Mark Twain put it: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

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