If you thought that last week’s parsha was tough for the leaders of the Israelites, it’s gotten worse in this week’s parsha. Twelve scouts are sent to Cana’an, ten of whom return with a negative report. In the big picture, this leaves the Israelites wandering the desert for an additional 38 years. In the immediate context, however, Moshe and Aharon must find a way to persuade the people not to listen to the dire report (which they ultimately fail to do). Immediately after the scouts make their public report, Moshe and Aharon despair: “And Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before the entire congregation of Israelites” (14:5, translation mine). The Sforno, in trying to provide context for this falling-on-one’s-face, points to a story in Bavli Sanhedrin (19b) that I learned recently, which would not have been my first guess at the background to why Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces. The story is about King Yannai, whose slave commits a crime (which his owner is responsible for), and is brought to court to be convicted, only to cow the court of rabbis due to his power as king. In that story, all but one of the rabbis covers their face out of fear of the king, and Yannai is not convicted. Sforno relates that both stories are about leaders who live to experience the verse “That which is crooked cannot be made straight” (Kohelet / Ecclesiastes 1:15). This connection would suggest that Moshe and Aharon are cowering before Hashem (who must be the figure analogous to Yannai), knowing that they cannot mete out proper justice for the wrong committed. However, our story does not progress along these lines – on the contrary, Hashem decrees that the entire generation should die in the desert, and Moshe softens Hashem to at least kill them off gradually (except those that rush Cana’an and are killed later in the parsha). What I do think is similar between the stories is that in both, the leaders despair of their own ability to enact justice – in the Biblical narrative, Hashem does just this, while in the Talmudic narrative, the story ends with the rabbis decreeing that kings will no longer be judged in a court. Both stories also continue the trend, seen in last week’s parsha, of depicting leaders as ultimately human, and in need of assistance.
In extreme cases
Even the greatest leaders