Parshas Devarim: A Different Leader

With Parshas Devarim we begin the fifth and final book of the chumash. In this final book we read Moshe’s farewell speech, as it were, to the Jewish people. He recounts the various major events of the previous forty years in the desert, and draws attention to and highlights key elements and lessons that he wants the nation to focus on and be aware of going forward. As Moshe does this, he often includes nuances and subtle shifts from the original narratives that, when examined closely, reveal absolutely critical information. We shall herein take a look at just one such example.

Towards the beginning of Moshe’s speech he recalls the fact that he was punished by God, and would not be allowed to actually accompany the Jewish people into the land of Israel:

Deuteronomy 1:37:

גַּם־בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר גַּם־אַתָּה לֹא־תָבֹא שָׁם׃

The LORD was incensed with me too because of you [the nation], and He said: You shall not enter [the land of Israel] either.

In reading this posuk we are presented with something of a difficulty given Moshe’s choice of words. He seems to be implying that the reason he was prohibited by God to enter into the land of Israel was because of something the nation did, and not his own sin of hitting the rock (as conventional wisdom for why Moshe was punished goes). Indeed, in order to explain this statement of Moshe we must first elaborate a little bit on the difference in the way of life for the nation in the desert versus their life-to-be in the land of Israel…

In the desert all was provided for the Jewish people directly from God. There was the man, the well of water, the protective clouds — all was provided for from on high without any human intervention necessary. Rather, these miracles were due to the various merits of the great leaders of the nation: The man was in the merit of Moshe, the well in the merit of Miriam, and the protective clouds in the merit of Aharon, all as explained by the Gemara in Ta’anis (9a). However, when the Jews were to enter into the land of Israel — after Moshe, Miriam, and Aharon had passed — these miracles would cease to exist. Rather, the Jewish people’s livelihood and wellbeing would be directly correlated to the work and effort they would put in. In a word, the welfare of the people would henceforth depend on natural causes as opposed to the supernatural protection and assurance they merited in the desert.

Thus, when Miriam died and the well ceased to produce water, this was in preparation for the way things would be in the land of Israel when all miraculous sustenance would come to an end. God was slowly weaning the Jewish people off of the miraculous and unique sustenance of the desert, preparing them for the way the world would work until this very day. This, then, was also why God commanded Moshe to speak to the rock (and not to hit it). It was in order to instruct the Jewish people in prayer in preparation for the way things would be in the land of Israel, and for all time to come. Sustenance does not come miraculously by hitting a rock with some stick, but from prayer and hard work.

When Moshe then hit the rock instead of speaking to it, and the water began to flow, the Jewish people received the benefit without the understanding of the prayer and work that was needed prior. The lesson God wanted to teach the Jewish people was lost. It was for this reason that Moshe was punished and prohibited from entering the land of Israel. When Moshe states in our posuk above that it was because of the nation he was barred from entering the land of Israel, his intention was not to say that it was the nation’s fault, but that since the way of life in the land of Israel would be one of pure nature — and success would come according only to the prayer and hard work put in — he was no longer capable of leading the nation. In other words, “because of the nation,” and the way they functioned, the sort of leader that they actually needed was not Moshe. Moshe existed at too high a spiritual plane, and was too accustomed to the supernatural and miraculous. He simply was not fit to lead the Jewish people in a natural environment. As such, recognizing that the best thing for the nation was to pass the staff of leadership on to someone else, Moshe did just that.

Real, proper, and successful leadership comes first and foremost from a recognition of what those you are leading really need. Indeed, when the success of those you lead is truly paramount, there comes also the ability to understand when perhaps that which they really need is a different leader altogether.

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