The Missing Argument: Why did Moshe Pull His Punches in His Argument with God?


The Missing Argument: Why did Moshe Pull His Punches in His Argument with God?

Shelah, 2009/5769 June 20, 2009

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg at Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach


כג  וַיֹּאמֶר לְהַשְׁמִידָם לוּלֵי משֶׁה בְחִירוֹ עָמַד בַּפֶּרֶץ לְפָנָיו לְהָשִׁיב חֲמָתוֹ מֵהַשְׁחִית:



“Therefore he (God) said that he would destroy them,

Had not Moses His chosen stood before him in the breach,

To turn away His wrath, lest He should destroy them.”








This passage from Psalm 106 praises Moshe for defending Israel in the face of God’s threats to destroy them. Moshe stands before God in the breach in our portion of the Spies, to intercede before God to prevent the destruction of His people in the wilderness for the evil report about the Promised land.




Moshe’s intercession on behalf of Israel in the case of the spies reminds us of the previous intercession in the wake of the Golden Cafe in Parshat Yitro in the Book of Exodus. In both cases a wrathful God informs Moshe of his intent to destroy the Children of Israel. Moshe, in that incident, shows his superior skills as a defense attorney on behalf of his people. It is fascinating to compare the arguments he employs there and here. As you will see they are different. In fact, Moshe leaves out a critical defense argument which he used to get God to relent after the Golden Calf.





In our portion, starting from Chapter 14:13 through verse 19, Moshe, according to the geat Torah commentator, Nechama Liebowitz, offers one argument. God should not destroy Israel, because by doing so, He will bring down disrepute on His name. “The Egyptians will hear and say because the Lord was not able.” God’s name will be ridiculed by the Egyptians and the nations as a God who destroys the very people he saved from slavery in Egypt.




Contrast this to the more forceful and multifaceted defense of the Children of Israel after the Golden Calf fiasco. There Moshe employs three arguments.

First he reminds God of His love for his people, “Why should your anger flare at your people who you brought out of the land of Egypt…?”

Second, he utilizes the argument in today’s portion that He will bring His name into disrepute among the nations.

Third, and most important, Moshe, reminds God, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants that you sword tothem by yourself…” This famous argument is called-Zchut Avot-the merit of the patriarchs.


Moshe employs zchut aovt, the merit of the patriarchs and the great love which God had for them helped to “tip the balance” of God’s judgment in favor of the Israelites even at times when they err severely. A Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 36:25 gives a very concrete way to understand this concept, “If there were no good deeds in Jacob’s then Isaac’s would suffice, and if Isaac’s deeds did not suffice, then Abraham’s would suffice; in fact, the deeds of each one alone would suffice for the whole world to be kept suspended in it’s position on account of their merit. (Leviticus Rabbah 36:25 as quoted by the editors of Teaching Torah, ARE, 1984 as quoted by Rabbi Jodie Futornick)




My friends, the reference to Zchut Avot-the merit of our ancestors- is embedded in our Siddur. We cite their names when we petition or thank God in the Amidah. When we mention the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and in our congregation we add the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel–we praise God for remembering their good actions, and by implication, we ask God to hear our own prayers favorably because of their merit.




Which brings me to the question of the day. Why didn’t Moshe pull out of his bag of powerful arguments Zchut Avot after the rebellion of the Spies? Afterall, recalling a promise made in the past is a very powerful point in an argument. We use it in disputes with family members, with employers, and with politicians who fail to follow up on their promises. Why doesn’t Moshe use it here?




Nechama Liebowitz suggests one answer: “In the face of their ingratitude and lack of faith only one argument remained for Moshe. He could not plead that they or the merit of their fathers should be taken into consideration, but only that God should have regard, as it were for His reputation.” Liebowitz p. 160 Studies in Bamidbar

In other words, the children of Israel had worn out God’s patience. They had exhausted their merit, so the only way Moshe can spare them is to remind God of the consequences of his intentions to his reputation among the nations. In other words his, is an argument of desperation.


Here is another view from the anthology of Hasidic interpretation on the Torah, Iturei Torah:

“Why did Moshe not mention at the sin of the spies the merit of the patriarchs, like he did at the sin of the calf? With all of Israel’s sins Moshe believed that the merit of the fathers would work (as an argument) on their behalf, but when they maligned the promised land, and spoke calumnies about the land of the patriarchs, Moshe asked himself if it was possible to use the merit of the patriarchs on Israel’s behalf.”




By this view, Moshe couldn’t use Zchut Avot, because the sin of the Spies centered on their evil report about the land of the Patriarchs. The lives of the Patriarchs centered on settling in the land. “Lech Lecha-Go forth to the land that I will show you,” God commands Abraham. The whole of Exodus is a collective Lech Lecha, but here, the people want to go in the opposite direction. So how could Moshe mention Abraham in the same breadth as this people who refused to go up to the land of Abraham. Since they rejected the land of Israel they severed their connectioon with their ancestors.




Every so often I meet Jewish people who tell me they will never intend to visit Israel. They give all sorts of reasons: security, cost, politics. I feel they are like the children of Israel in our portion, reacting to the bad reports of the media and refusing to go up to the land, even for a visit. I am especially troubled by these encounters because I know how much connecting to the Land and People of Israel has meant to me. I fell in love with Israel after my first visit there during my junior year abroad as a student at UC Berekely. Subsequently I have spent many years of my life in Israel, became fluent in the Hebrew language, and established a committed Jewish life. I identify with Caleb and Joshua who saw the land and its goodness.




But Moshe in our portion faces a people who have given up on Israel, like the resistant and fearful Jews I have encountered. But he finds a way to advocate for them nevertheless.




The Biblical Scholar, Richard Elliot Friedman points out insightfully, “Abraham questioned God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, but his conversation did not change anything. Ten virtuous persons were not found and the cities were destroyed. But Moses is pictured as actually making a difference ina divine decision and in the fate of the people. This is another case in which there is growth in the human stance relative to God.”




The growth that Friedman talks about is two-fold. First, Moshe grows in simple effectiveness. As Moshe gets experience arguing before God, he learns to use effective arguments that will, as it were, suspend the decision of the judge.




But Moshe teaches us something even more important by his courage of standing in the breach before God.

Never give up on the people!

Never give up on a Jew, no matter how far he or she has drifted away.

Never close the door on helping a Jew reconnect to Israel or to Judaism.

Find the argument, the connection, the door that will work to restore a sense of covenant-of relationship to God, Torah, and the Jewish people.




This applies to all of us. We may have friends who are disconnected from Judaism. We surely have familiy members who are alienated from Judaism. Most painfully, we may have children or grandchildren who are disconnected, unaffiliated, disengaged from anything Jewish. But like Moshe, we should never give up on them even after many attempts. That is what God expects of us, and how God is moved. Like Moshe, we must stand in the breach and advocate for the Jewish people. When we make the effort to restore a soul to the Jewish people we are given zchut-merit and we restore the merit of our ancestors who walked in the land and before God. May we all be priveleged with success in restoring the Jewish people in covenant with our God.






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