It is surprising to acknowledge that the Torah only specifies one single instance in which Moshe spoke to God. This doesn’t sound correct, I know, but it’s true! There are a handful of times in which Moshe said something to God, but there is only one moment in which Moshe spoke God. What’s the difference, you ask? The Rabbis taught that when the Torah uses the language of dibbur, of speaking, it is “harsh language.” The implication, then, is that when the Torah uses the language of amirah, of saying, it is not harsh.
We must, then, pay extra close attention to the one, singular instance in which Moshe employs harsh language with the Holy One.
A little context – after the men are tempted by Midianite women to worship Ba’al Pe’or at the end of Parashat Balak a massive plague breaks out. The plague is ended by Pinhas violently impaling two people copulating publicly in front of the Mishkan. And as is the way of Torah following a massive loss of life, there is a census. This census is intended to be the determining factor for how the land will be allotted among the tribes. This inspires the five daughters of Tzelaf’had to stake a claim for their own land since inheritance law passes only through the male lineage. After checking in with God, Moshe changes the law and the five women will have claim to land as an inheritance from their father. And while we’re on the topic of entering the land…
Hashem said to Moshe: Ascend this Mount Avarim and see the land which I have given to the Children of Yisrael. See it, and be gathered to your people, also you; just as Aharon your brother was gathered. Since you rebelled against me in the wilderness of Tzin, when the community quarreled, to cause me to be designated through water before your eyes; they are the waters of Merivat Kadesh of the Wilderness of Tzin. (Numbers 27:12-14)
The Midrash teaches that Moshe might have thought, since the census was taken and the land was theoretically allotted, that Moshe did all of God’s bidding for forty years, that here they are at the end of the journey at the Plains of Moav overlooking the land, here they are in the final days with nearly every person who left Mitzrayim gone, that maybe, just maybe, God would reverse the decree and Moshe could enter the land.
Now, tradition says that Moshe’s mis-step was grounded in his language, that he spoke harshly with the people by calling them rebels. And now Hashem is giving Moshe a taste of his own medicine by calling him the rebel! So is Moshe irritated to be reminded of his punishment? Maybe, or maybe he had already accepted it. But to be called a rebel? That’s a step too far for him, and so his response?
Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying. Hashem should appoint, God of the Spirits of All Flesh, a man over the community. Who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will bring them out, and who will bring them in; so the community of Hashem not be like a flock without a shepherd. (Num. 27:15-17)
God continues to instruct Moshe that Yehoshua will be brought up the mountain with him, in the presence of Elazar the Priest, and the mantle of leadership will be passed. But it’s important to recognize that were we to take Moshe’s speaking to Hashem out of the passage, the continuity of God’s statement still works. In other words, Moshe is interrupting God!
Did Moshe really think God hadn’t thought of succession? Did Moshe really believe that he knows the people and their needs better than the Holy One? Rather, perhaps Moshe is reacting to God’s timing.
Moshe knows that his days are numbered, he knows he will not enter the land, he knows they’re at the boundary, he knows the final census has been taken. The answer to Moshe’s frustration may be in the name he uses for God, among all the many names he could have used, “God of the Spirits of All Flesh.”
Rashi brings the Midrash to explain this name which teaches that it means that God understands the personality and characteristics of each individual, so too God should choose a successor who possesses those characteristics. And let’s recall when Moshe was selected to shepherd God’s people, and why Moshe was selected to shepherd God’s people.
When Moshe Rabbeinu, may peace be upon him, was shepherding the flock of Yitro in the wilderness, one of the kids ran away from him. It ran away until it arrived at a shady place. When it arrived at the shady place, it went to a pool of water and the kid stood drinking. When Moshe caught up to it, he said: I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty, you must be tired! He put it on his shoulders and walked on. The Holy Blessed One said: You have compassion to lead a flock of flesh and blood, so too by your life, you will shepherd my flock, the Jewish people; hence – “Moshe was shepherding”
Moshe was mad, perhaps, because God called him a rebel at the end of his 40 years of service, while at the beginning God recognized his compassion.
And how do we know God accepts Moshe’s frustration and does not hold it against him? Because God allows for Moshe to interrupt and speak with the harsh language Moshe feels in the moment, knowing that the harshness Moshe feels in the moment does not negate the humility and compassion which is the core essence of who Moshe was, because as the Midrash teaches, the “God of the Spirits of All Flesh” knows the inner workings of every person and their true personality and characteristics.