“And Elazar the priest said: This is the law of the Torah, which the Lord commanded Moshe” (Bamidbar 31:21). The Torah goes on to describe the laws of kashering utensils, laws that were pertinent in light of the spoils captured by the Israelites in their war with Midian.
Our Sages, quoted by Rashi, were perplexed as to why Elazar and not Moshe gave this series of laws, especially as the Torah tells us it was Moshe whom G-d had commanded regarding these laws.
The Torah notes that immediately prior, when the soldiers came back from their war with the Midianites, Moshe was full of anger regarding how they had conducted that war. Our Sages note, “Since he came to anger, he came to mistakes”. Rashi cites two additional examples where Moshe’s anger led to mistakes. After 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 thus, no sacrifices may be brought (Vayikra 10:15-20).
The second case Rashi quotes is the incident of the Mei Merivah, where Moshe’s anger led him to strike the rock, depriving him of his 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 displayed by Moshe when he struck the rock was a mistake of leadership, and one in which Moshe missed an opportunity to sanctify the name of G-d. Legal mistakes can be corrected; those of leadership, less so.
Moshe, by nature, was short-tempered; and while his anger served him well in breaking the tablets and in defending the Jew being attacked in Egypt, ultimately it cost him dearly.
What is most striking is that immediately after Elazar teaches the law regarding utensils, Moshe is faced with a situation that we would have expected would kindle his anger. The tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moshe, requesting to stay behind as their brothers crossed the Jordan River. Yet, despite the fact that it was the rejection of the land that caused the 40 years of wandering in the desert—something that Moshe did point out in reprimanding them—Moshe calmly responded to this potentially dangerous situation, beginning with the word, “vayomer, and he said”, a phrase our Sages note indicates softness as opposed to vayedaber, which indicates harshness (Makkot 11a). Why, with the people on the verge of entering Israel, did Moshe not vent his wrath on these people, who would “dishearten the children of Israel as they were about to enter the land” (Bamidbar 32:7)?
While one could possibly suggest that Moshe had learned that anger rarely (if ever) works, it appears to me that there is an additional element in this case. It was not going to be easy to conquer and settle the Land of Israel. With few natural resources and enemies all around, why not stay on the other side of the Jordan, where economic success and peace and quiet reign?
Israel is where the Divine Presence dwells, where spirituality is in the air and holiness is in the Land. But not all were desirous of such intangible goals, and instead focused on the difficulties of living in Israel. While extremely disappointed with such a request, Moshe understood this.
The Talmud (Brachot 5a) teaches that the Land of Israel can be acquired only through yisurin, pain and suffering. Those who merit to live there are assured of their place in the World to Come, the world of truth, peace and tranquility (see Ketubot 110b-111a).
Sefer Bamidbar is the book of our relationship to the Land of Israel. It begins with the census and details of setting up the camp as we prepared to journey from Sinai to Israel. Parshat Massei details the stops along the way, the mitzvah to settle the land, the borders of our land, and the special cities of the levi’im and the cities of refuge for those in need of protection. (Apparently, while we often feel Israel is unsafe, when Jews have to flee, it is the Land of Israel that offers refuge.)
Bamidbar ends with a repeat of the story of the daughters of Zelafchad, as if to urge us to emulate their desire for a portion in the land. Between the beginning and end of Bamidbar, 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.