The Israelites’ loud and vociferous complaining is a common feature of the books of Exodus and Numbers. Much of this is for good reason. It makes sense — they had been cruelly enslaved, suffered greatly under Pharoah’s hand, wandered long and hard in the desert, hungry and thirsty, not necessarily sure of where they were going, and often doubted their leader Moses and his capability to get them to the Promised Land.
But we are a bit more surprised to hear complaining from our esteemed leader, Moses. As he opens his lengthy farewell discourse in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses utters the word “burden” twice within four verses. He says, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. May the Lord God of your ancestors increase your numbers a thousand-fold and bless you as God promised you. How can I bear, by myself, the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:9-12). Look, the Israelites are not an easy people at all. It is totally understandable that Moses could feel this way.
What was it about this burden that made Moses feel it was so heavy? The Spanish medieval biblical commentator Ibn Ezra tells us that this heavy burden on Moses was that B’nei Yisrael asked for things all the time: bread to eat, water to drink, meat to sustain themselves. It is truly exhausting for Moses — or for any leader, for that matter — to field all of these requests, all of the time, and to deal with the accompanying emotions of exhaustion, fear, disappointment, impatience and the like. Moses felt that the burden for the entire people lay squarely on his shoulders.
But the medieval French commentator Rashi gives a different description of this burden that Moses felt so deeply. Rashi claims this was a burden of pre-judgment and misjudgment: “If Moses went forth early from his tent, they said, ‘Why does the son of Amram [Moses’ father] leave so early? Perhaps he is not comfortable in his own home?’ If he left late, they said, ‘What do you think? He is sitting and devising evil schemes against you, and is plotting against you.’ ”
Moses couldn’t win for losing. According to Rashi, no matter how virtuously he lived his life, no matter how hard he worked, B’nei Yisrael always thought the absolute worst of him. They said it behind his back. And Moses had to live with knowing that these conversations were happening.
Ibn Ezra describes the physical burden: dealing with demands for resources and a constant interaction with his constituents, as they were. While this is tough, the burden that Rashi eloquently describes is worse. It is a burden that transcends meeting the physical needs of the people. It is a burden that lives on in the psyche of the people he was trying so desperately to serve well. And this burden took up precious space in Moses’ psyche as well. You can imagine the questions he asked himself: “Why can’t I be a good enough leader? Why can’t I make them happy? Why can’t B’nei Yisrael cut me some slack?”
Rashi’s commentary on Moses’ internal struggle as a leader can spur us to consider: How many times have we placed an undue psychological burden on others by unfairly judging them? Do we often put others in a position of not being able to win for losing?
In Pirkei Avot, we find sage advice: Give the benefit of the doubt to every person — dan kaf zechut. One of the absolute worst things we can burden each other with is the heavy burden of constant and unfair judgment.
The Hasidic sources in our tradition tell us there is judgment (din) in the world. But that din must be balanced with kindness or love (hesed). If din and hesed are on a continuum, then it is our job to make sure we strike the balance between the two. If we are too heavy on din, then the world can be a cruel and isolating place. Moses felt this in his heart and cried out to God about his internal burden.
This week, let the burden go. Judging others is better left to someone else — you don’t need to carry it.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.