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28.07.2020 18:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parasha vaetchanan  

Each Generation and Its Leader

Moses’ greatest longing in life was to enter the Promised Land along with the people he had led for decades, having taken them out of Egypt and wandered with them in the wilderness, suffering with them until the generation not privileged to enter the land had perished.  Now they were finally at the outskirts of the land he longed to enter, but the Lord would not heed his pleas to be permitted entry along with his people and answered him decidedly:

Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south and the east.  Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.  (Deut. 3:27)

The decree made in the wake of the Waters of Merivah still stood:

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  (Num. 20:12)

The gaps in information left by the Lord’s response have been filled in by a wealth of homilies that suggest a fascinating and moving conversation between the Lord and Moses.  The same questions about which the reader wonders were also raised in the beit midrash and answered there by a conversation full of ideas about faith.

For example, in this week’s reading Moses reproaches the people, saying, “The Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.  The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!” (Deut. 3:26).  What “this matter” is remains vague, concealing more than revealing, even after numerous attempts at interpretation.  Moses turned to the Lord and said:

O Lord G‑d, You who let Your servant see the first works (Heb. hahilota le-har’ot) of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!  (Deut. 3:24)

Deuteronomy Rabbah (2.8) comments on this as follows:

“O Lord G‑d, you hahilota.”  He [Moses] said to him:  Lord of the Universe, why should I not be permitted to enter the land for having said “Listen, ye rebels” (Num. 20:10)?  You were the one who first (tehillah) said “to be kept as a lesson to rebels” (Num. 17:25).  Another interpretation:  “You were the first (hahillota)”:  Rabbi Reuben said:  Moses said to the Holy One, blessed be He:  Why are you doing this to me?  It was You who first approached me!  Whence do we know this?  Since it is written, “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush” (Ex. 3:2).  You, who made me great—will You now degrade me?!  The Holy One, blessed be He, answered him:  But I have sworn thus!  He said to Him:  Lord of the Universe, you hahillota [profaned], for when You so desired did You not break (hillalta) Your oath?  Did you not swear that You would wipe out Your children because of the [Golden] Calf? Yet You retracted, as it is said, “and the Lord repented” (Ex. 32:14).

The first homily interprets the verb hahillota as hit’halta—You began.  Moses turns to the Lord and asks:  Is it because I addressed the people as “rebels,” i.e., rebelling against the Lord (Ibn Ezra on Num. 20:10:  “Because they challenged the spirit of the Lord”)?  I only used the same term You used in the Korah dispute: “to be kept as a lesson to rebels.”  So why have you poured out Your wrath on me?

The second homily interprets hahillota as hillalta—You changed, altered Your opinion.  The homilist describes the great difficulty with which Moses had to cope.  In the past the Lord elevated him to a great height, but now, in refusing to comply with his request to enter the land, He was bringing him down to the level of the sinful generation that did not merit entering the land on account of the sin of the spies.  Moses’ request of the Lord to retract His edict/oath not to let him enter the land would indeed be a “change of His word,” but precedents for that were provided by all the instances in which Moses had succeeded in averting decrees of the Creator against the people, such as in the affair of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32).

Tanhuma (VaEtchanan 6) relates to verse 3:25:  “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land”:

He said to Him:  May it please be Your will that I enter the land and be there for two or three years, and then I will die.  He answered him:  “You shall not enter it.”  He begged:  If I may not enter it in my life, let me enter after my death.  He replied:  Neither in your lifetime, nor after your death.

In other words, even Moses’ attempt to modify the decree of not entering the land by obtaining permission to enter for a limited time did not succeed.  Moreover, Moses was informed that even after his death he would not enter the land.

The three homilies presented here, and other homilies on this week’s reading, describe difficult struggles evoked by the words:  “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

In the context of these difficulties and others dealt with by homilies on this week’s reading, there stands out a group of homilies that suggest another reason for the decree.  They do not attribute it to what happened at the Waters of Merivah alone, but also to the nature of Moses’ (and Aaron’s) leadership, which suited the generation of the wilderness but was not suitable for conquering and settling the land.  The following homily (Numbers Rabbah 19.13) conveys this message:

In what guise do you seek to enter the land?  This may be illustrated by a parable.  Once a shepherd took the king’s flock out to pasture, and the flock was carried off.  The shepherd sought to enter the king’s palace, but the king said to him, “If you come in now, what will the people say?  That it was your fault the flock was carried off.”  So, here too, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Your glory is that you took six hundred thousand people out [of bondage] but you buried them in the wilderness; and now you are bringing into the land a different generation!  Now people will say that the generation of the wilderness have no share in the World to Come!  Rather, you should be beside them, and you will enter with them,” as it says (Deut. 33:21):  “[For there is the portion of the revered chieftain], where the heads of the people come.  He executed the Lord’s judgments.”  Hence it is written, “You shall not lead thiscongregation” (Num. 20:12), rather the one that came out [of Egypt] with you.

The homily points out the significant bond between the leader and his flock; the leader cannot separate himself from the fate of those whom he leads.  If Moses were to be permitted to enter the land, he would be separating himself from the generation of the wilderness whom he took out of Egypt.  Therefore, if the people failed, then their leader also failed with them.  Neither may he separate himself from them even in death; just as the king’s shepherd, who failed to watch over his flocks properly but let them be stolen, after having failed can no longer enter the king’s palace as he had been accustomed to.  Thus, Moses words of reproach in this week’s reading, “But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account” (Deut. 3:26), mean because you were “a treacherous generation, children with no loyalty in them” (Deut. 32:20), a generation that rebelled against the Lord and against His emissary.  On their account he was punished and prevented from entering the land.  Despite his excellent leadership, Moses did not succeed in changing the behavior of the people significantly, and therefore he was not fit to bring them into the land.

In another homily (Deuteronomy Rabbah, VaEtchanan, Lieberman ed., s.v. rav lekha), Moses gives up his position of leadership and asks to enter the land as deputy to Joshua, his successor.  But even this the Lord refused, answering him:

If you take all, you leave nothing for your disciple Joshua.  You delivered the Israelites from Egypt, led them through the sea, brought them manna and the Torah, led them through the wilderness for forty years, and now you request to enter the land and apportion it to them? You are not leaving anything for Joshua.  He said to Him:  Let Joshua enter the land and apportion it to them and be their leader, and I will enter with them as deputy.  He said to him:  You ask for too much—letting Joshua sit and exposit, letting him lead the Israelites and teach them, while you sit and watch him.  That is to say, “Enough!”

This homily expresses an important principle of leadership.  When the leader is replaced, for any reason, he must let his successor lead the community or people independently, without the outgoing leader making his presence felt.  It is fitting for him to bestow of his spirit on the successor before he is appointed, to encourage and support him and to transfer the mantel of leadership to him in a ceremonious, public fashion, as Moses indeed did.  But afterwards he must let him lead the community in his own way, as we learn from the following (Midrash TanhumaVa-Etchanan 6):

This is what I had in mind, and this is the way of the world:  Every generation has those who interpret it; every generation has those who support it; and every generation has those who lead it.  Until now it was your role to serve Me, but now your role is done and it is time for your disciple Joshua to serve.

The greatness of a leader also finds expression in the way he steps down and passes the mantel of leadership on to his successor, even when dealing with leaders like Moses and Joshua, whom the Sages compared to the heavenly bodies (Bava Batra 75a):  “Moses’ face was like the sun, and Joshua’s face was like the moon.”  Therefore, Moses’ entreaty in this week’s reading concludes with the Lord answering him (Deut. 3:27-28):

Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east.  Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.

Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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