Moses And The Difficulty Of Leadership


Between the lines we glimpse the difficulties — even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, a leader who sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation. Moses feels that he is failing to direct the people toward the very goal of their Exodus; the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel. Where has he gone wrong, and why?

From the very beginning, when the Israelites were at the lowest point of their oppression, God instructs Moses to raise their spirits with five Divine promises. “I am the Lord: I will take you out from the burdens of Egypt; I will save you from their slavery; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; I will take you as a nation; and I will bring you to the land which I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I shall give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord” [Exodus 6:6-8].

Now Moses has already succeeded — thanks to God’s miracles — in fulfilling the first four “redemptions.” Only the final one is lacking: the entry into His land. What causes the delay in fulfilling this final stage of redemption? It cannot only be that the Miraglim (the Ten Scouts) — each the prince of a tribe — were frightened by the Canaanites [Numbers 13:31], since a war against the Canaanites was no greater a trial than standing up to Egypt, or diving into the “Reed Sea” (the Hebrew name for the Red Sea).

Something changed in the intervening year between crossing the Reed Sea and the proposed conquest of the Promised Land. The Israelites have intensified their complaining [Num. 11:4-5]. Moses feels totally inadequate to deal with such an ungrateful people [Num. 11:11-15].

God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders in the Tent of Communion, appointing them as his assistants. God will cause some of Moses’ spiritual energy to devolve upon them, enabling the prophet to share the responsibility of leadership [Num. 11:16-17]. At the same time, God will send quails to allay the people’s lust for meat.

But then, in this week’s reading, Moses seems to miscalculate by sending out a reconnaissance mission into Canaan. Moses exhorts them, as they survey the terrain of the land and the nature of the enemy, to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land,” to show the Israelites [Num. 13:20] the bounty of Canaan. What Moses fails to appreciate, I believe, is that the real problem was with Moses’ own “distanced” leadership, whether from the heights of Sinai or the inner sanctum of the Tent of Communion.

Moses initially rejected God’s offer of leadership because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” [Exodus 4:10]. This cannot simply mean that he stuttered and stammered because God immediately answered by saying, “Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?” Nevertheless, Moses continues to reiterate his problem of being afflicted by “stopped-up lips” (aral sfatayim).

I would maintain that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of “heavy speech” rather than friendly small talk, a prophet who is in almost constant contact with God about theology and law, morality and ethics, rather than being a man of the people, with infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program by sugar-coating it. As the Torah says, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult Divine service” [Ralbag’s interpretation of Ex. 6:9]. Moses remains “distant” from the people, a prophet for all the generations; more than a leader for his generation.

Indeed, Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; instead he speaks to God in the Tent of Communion, far removed from the encampment [Leviticus 1:1; Num. 7:89]. It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself, in the midst of the people [Num. 11:26]. Moses’ greatest asset — his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” God’s will — is also his most profound tragedy, the cause of his distance from the people, his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be re-inspired and re-charged with new challenges and lofty goals if they are to be above petty squabbling and materialistic desires.

The people’s kvetching is not because they really want the “leeks and the onions”; it is because they don’t know what they want. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, they will need, as we all need, a mission, a purpose for being. This, however, will have to await a new leader, who may be less a man of God but more a man of the people.   

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 8:07 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Havdalah: 9:08 p.m.