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Parashat Devarim 5772 – 07/25/2012

Parashat Devarim

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Your troubles, your entreaties and your quarrels (1:12)

Gd was also angry with me for your sake (1:37)

And so said the Sages in Sifrei: Because you (Moses and Aaron) trespassed against Me (below, 32:51) – you caused a trespassing to occur – because you did not sanctify Me among the Children of Israel – you caused the situation of not sanctifying Me – because you rebelled against My word – you cause rebellion against My word.  The Sages thus made all the expressions causative, referring to Israel. (Ramban ad loc)

Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader our people has ever known, and in his final charge to the nation, about to enter their new life in their Land, we see a reflection of the qualities of an ideal leader.  In our parashah Moshe reviews for the people the events of the past 40 years with the objective of understanding how we got to this point, what challenges are ahead of us, and how the upcoming new leadership can help meet those challenges.

After a brief prologue, Moshe Rabbeinu begins with the establishment of the judicial system, based on the advice of his visiting father-in-law, Yitro.  He delineates three areas in which he had to exercise leadership, encoded in the phrase How can I bear by myself your trouble, your entreaties and your quarrels?  Ramban explains that these three words refer respectively to (i) teaching Torah, for teaching the same material over and over is a lot of trouble, albeit the reward is well worth the trouble, (ii) praying for their spiritual and material success (entreating Gd on their behalf) and (iii) adjudicating their disputes (quarrels). 

Ramban goes on to point out that the only one of these three areas in which Moshe delegated responsibility to others was the third.  The reason should be obvious.  Nobody then or at any time in the future understood Torah as well as Moshe Rabbeinu, who had it directly from Gd.  While he was alive there was nobody who could impart Torah on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu.  Furthermore, on the basis of his intimate connection with Gd, Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayers were singularly effective, staving off disaster on numerous occasions.

Now we can understand that Moshe Rabbeinu was uniquely qualified to lead in all three areas we have mentioned, yet only in the third did he delegate responsibility.  If we remember back to Parashat Yitro, Yitro tells Moshe that if he continued to judge the people all day both he and they would burn out.  His solution was to create the judicial system, with Moshe Rabbeinu acting as the “Supreme Court,” but for the other two functions Moshe would continue to act alone.  I think, based on my own experience, that this is because teaching and praying are not net drains of one’s energy.  They take a great deal of energy to perform properly, but their ultimate end is to energize the one doing the teaching or praying!  When I was in the process of getting my teaching certificate in late-1960’s New York I spoke with one of my mother’s friends and colleagues who had taught for decades.  He told me, “When you get home you’re tired, but it’s a good tired.”  Teaching Torah is better still: since Torah is the actual structure of Creation, a reflection of the virtual structure of the ayn sof, the infinite basis of all existence, when we teach Torah we are putting our mind parallel with this infinite source of energy and intelligence.  And certainly when it comes to prayer, where, ideally, we contact this level directly, we get infused with infinity.  There was no need for delegation here!

We get a different insight into Moshe’s leadership later on in the first chapter.  In recounting the incident at the “Waters of Strife,” where he struck the rock rather than speaking to it, Moshe explains that Gd was angry at him because of the people.  Earlier, at the time of the incident, in the Book of Numbers (where Gd was “dictating” as it were, rather than Moshe’s speaking on his own as he is here), Moshe (and Aharon) are described as “not believing” in Gd, and as “trespassing Gd’s Word,” all accusations that are incredible on their face.  Ramban, based on Sifrei translates all the terms into the causative – by their actions they caused the people to rebel against Gd etc.  Of course in the overall evaluation of Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership we find that he in fact raised the nation from a slave-rabble to a people focused on one goal – establishing Gd’s sovereignty in the world.  Pirke Avot (V:21) testifies:

Whoever makes the people meritorious will not be the cause of sin … Moses was meritorious and made the people meritorious, so the merit of the people was to his credit as it says: “He performed the righteousness of Hashem, and His judgments in Israel.”

Ultimately, this is what true leadership is all about – making those we are leading better people.  All the wonderful qualities of leadership that Moshe Rabbeinu demonstrated was for the single purpose of raising the spiritual level of the Jewish people, as he himself put it: Would all Gd’s people were prophets! (Bamidbar 11:29).  And truly, we are all in positions of leadership at one time or another – leadership in the workplace, in the family, in a circle of friends.  We can only be successful in whatever leadership role we accept if we put the people and their spiritual welfare first.  We must raise our own spiritual level so that we can pray for them and teach them, by both precept and example.  When the world has leaders like this we will all truly be living heaven on earth.

Pirke Avot

Today is actually Tisha B’Av (the fasts of 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av always fall on the same day of the week as the first day of Pesach, which is Shabbat this year).  In honor of Shabbat we defer the fast to Sunday (the fast actually begins before sundown on Shabbat, before Shabbat is officially over, and goes through dark on Sunday evening), but in the spirit of Tisha B’Av, on which Torah study is normally forbidden (it is our greatest delight, and we abstain from it on this day of mourning), we do not read a chapter of Pirke Avot at Minchah.  We resume with Chapter 3 next week.  May we all have an easy and meaningful fast on Sunday.