"And Elazar the priest said this is the law of the Torah which the Lord commanded Moshe" (31:21). G-d had commanded Moshe to "take revenge against the Midianites" (31:2) for their role in the tragedy of ba'al peor (25:1-9), in which 24,000 Israelites were killed after being led astray by the Midianite women. Upon successful completion of the battle the Torah proceeds to describe the laws of kashering our utensils, laws that were pertinent in light of the spoils which the Israelites captured in the aftermath of the war with Midian . Our Sages, quoted by Rashi , were perplexed as to why Elazar and not Moshe gave this series of laws to the Jewish people, especially as it was Moshe whom G-d had commanded regarding these laws.
When the soldiers came back from the war with the Midianites Moshe scolded them for their war tactics (31:14) and it was this anger that caused him to err and to forget the law. Sadly this was not the first time Moshe's anger led to error. A fter the death of Nadav and Avihu , Moshe was angry at the two surviving brothers Elazar (the same Elazar of our parsha ) and Itamar for not continuing on with the sacrificial order. His anger blinded him to the fact that in the face of death, we are distant from G-d, and no sacrifices may be brought (Vayikra 10:15-20).
The anger displayed at the Mei-Merivah (20:1-14), when Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it, deprived him of the opportunity to lead the people into Israel . While the incidents of the sacrifices and utensils led to mistakes in the area of Jewish law, the anger Moshe displayed by striking the rock was a failure of leadership; hence Moshe's loss of his leadership role.
Moshe was short tempered by nature (see Tiferet Yisrael Kiddushin 4:12). While his anger served him well when it led him to break the tablets, at the sight of the golden calf and in his defence of the Jew being attacked in Egypt , ultimately it cost him dearly. What is most fascinating is that immediately after Elazar gave the law regarding utensils, Moshe was faced with the challenge of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, a situation that we might have expected would kindle his anger . These two tribes wished to stay behind as their brothers crossed the Jordan into the land of Israel . Notwithstanding that it was the rejection of the land of Israel that caused the forty years of wandering in the desert, Moshe calmly responded to this potentially dangerous situation. Why did Moshe not vent his wrath on these people "who (would) dishearten the children of Israel from going over into the land" (32:7)?
While one might possibly suggest that Moshe had learned that anger rarely if ever works, it appears that there is an additional factor at work here. It would not be easy to conquer and settle the land of Israel . With few natural resources, and enemies all around, it was much easier to remain on the other side of the Jordan where economic success and peace and quiet reigned. Israel is where the Divine presence dwells, where spirituality is in the air and holiness is in the land. But not all are desirous of such intangibles as they focus instead on the difficulties of living in Israel . Moshe, though extremely disappointed by the request not to enter the land, understood this.
The Talmud ( Brachot 5a) notes that the land of Israel can be acquired only through yisurin, pain and suffering. Those who merit living there are assured of their place in the world to come, the world of truth, peace and tranquility ( Ketubot 110b -111a).
Sefer Bamidbar is the book of our relationship to the land of Israel . It begins with the census and the setting up of the camp as we prepared to journey from Sinai to Israel . It ends with a detailed list of the stops along the way, the mitzvah to settle the land and a delineation of the borders of our land. The final few verses repeat the story of the daughters of Zelafchad as if to remind us to emulate their desire for a portion in the land.
In between, the Torah details why the generation that left Egypt did not merit to enter the land. Even the name Bamidbar serves to contrast the desert to the land flowing with milk and honey, the only land in which the Torah can be fully implemented. As we are witness to the yisurin that the Jews in Israel endure to acquire (maintain) the land, let us pray that "Arise, O G-d and scatter your enemies and let those who hate You flee before You" (Bamidbar 10:34).