I was honored yesterday to give the invocation at the Northwestern baccalaureate service, held in advance of Commencement. In my invocation, I talked about the important image in Jewish thought of God as teacher: melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, Who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel. I talked about the exquisite divine mystery inherent in a moment of teaching and learning, a moment as profound as that of creation. And I exhorted the graduates to emulate God, not only in God’s attributes of mercy and kindness, but to be like God the teacher–to recognize that we are all teachers.

In the Torah portion of Shelach (Num. 13-15), we witness one of the profound moments when God is not so much the teacher, as the learner. Moses is the one who instructs God, and in so doing he teaches us–and God Himself.

You will recall that after the spies bring back their report of the land of Israel and the people lose faith in their ability to conquer the land, God declares to Moses: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Num. 14:11-12). Moses’s response is instructive–to God and to us. He says:

“Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’

 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (Num. 14:13-19).

It is worth looking closely at this response. Moses does not immediately appeal to God’s mercy, or to the contradiction between God’s espoused attributes of forgiveness and His anger at the Israelites in this moment. No–he first puts the situation within a political context: What will the Egyptians think? What will the Canaanites think? It would be a shonda for the goyim!

What is Moses doing here? Rashi interprets him to mean that the Egyptians would conclude that in fact they had not sinned in their treatment of the Israelites, and thus the message of God’s actions in the Exodus would be lost. Ramban understands Moses to mean something slightly different: the Egyptians would think that the Canaanite gods were stronger than their own, and would thus exchange one idolatry for another. In either case, however, the fundamental message is the same: God’s goal in the Exodus had been to make Egypt, and by extension the world, recognize that God was the unique and absolute power in the universe. If God didn’t make good on delivering the Israelites into the promised land, then all God’s actions would not only be for naught, but God’s goal would be set back.

It is only after he has made this political point that Moses goes for the moral argument: God, in our most intimate moment, when You revealed Your glory to me, You told me that your essence is compassion and forgiveness. You’re contradicting Yourself–in fact, You’re not being Yourself. So be Yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of anger, and forgive these people.

And amazingly–or perhaps not so amazingly after all–God agrees: “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked” (Num. 14:20).

This is a radical moment–Moses teaches God. And Moses does it with the patience and courage of a teacher: he lets the issue ripen. He recognizes that God is angry at Israel, and so he doesn’t immediately seek forgiveness for Israel. Rather, he first helps God to realize the mistake God would be making; and then he reminds God to be Godself, and to turn back to Israel in forgiveness.

The first time I met Parker Palmer, he asked me to think of a moment with a student that had been a particularly effective one in my teaching. And then he asked me a question I had never thought to ask. Where most people would ask, “What did you do as a teacher to make that moment?” Parker instead asked me, “What was it about that student that enabled your teaching to work?”

Parker’s question is a reminder to us that this story is not only about Moses as an exemplary teacher. It is also about God as a learner. Hillel the Elder said, “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach” (Avot 2:5). We know that teaching requires courage. But Hillel reminds us, as does God, that learning does as well. To truly learn, especially in profound moments, one must courageously admit that one is incomplete, that one can change and grow. In the interaction between Moses and God in the Torah portion of Shelach, it is none other than God who humbly teaches us the essence of learning.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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