It's Hard to Be a Leader

This week's Dvar Torah is by Rav Ilan Haber, Director of the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) which is a program of the Orthodox Union in partnership with Hillel.

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Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement,

Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

From an outsider’s perspective, the experience of leadership often looks like a privilege rather than a terrible responsibility.  We often look at the leaders in our society and see only their success, fame, and fortune... without considering the personal sacrifice that often goes hand in hand with their public role.

 This is perhaps most apparent with our greatest and most successful historical leader, Moshe. Unlike Aharon, Moshe did not enjoy 'nachat' from his children and grandchildren, who, according to Chazal, became idolaters.  We see his personal frustration come out in Parshat Behaalotcha when he decries being able to carry the full burden of the Jewish people and their rebellious ways.

Parshat Hukkat relates the death of Miriam. This is followed by the incident in which Moshe hits the rock in order to draw out water for the Jewish people and he is subsequently punished – banned from entering Eretz Yisrael as the leader of the Jewish people. This punishment seems, at first glance, unusually harsh for what happened and our sages differ as to the mistake  Moshe made and why this results in his removal from leadership and death, before Bnai Yisrael enter the Eretz Hakedosha.

I would like to offer a possible explanation based on a little known Midrash (Otzar Hamidrashim -  Ve-Aleh Toldot Aharon U’Moshe Ketah 12).  According to Chazal, the well that would follow Bnai Yisrael through the Midbar, was due specifically to the zechutm merits, of Miriam.  When she died, Bnai Yisrael were left without a source of water.  However, we must understand that as Miriam’s brothers, both Moshe and Aharon were in mourning over Miriam’s death.

]The Midrash describes Moshe and Aharon  as secluding themselves in a tent for six hours, crying and mourning.  The Midrash then relates that Bnai Yisrael enter the tent and have the following conversation with Moshe:

Bnei Yisrael:  Until when are you going to sit and cry?

Moshe:  Do I not cry on the death of my sister who died?

Bnei Yisrael:  Just like you cry on one life, cry for all of us.

Moshe:  Why?

Bnei Yisrael:  We have no water to drink.

Moshe (goes out to investigate and then responds): Didn’t I tell you that I am not able to bear all of you alone?  You have officers for the thousands, for the hundreds, for fifties, for tens, princes, officers, and great elders.  They will work for you.

Bnei Yisrael:  Everything is your responsibility, because you are the one who took us out of Egypt and brought us to this horrible place.  If you give us water, great, if not, we will stone you.

Bnei Yisrael, in their need for water, were unable to give Moshe even a modicum of personal space to enable him to mourn the loss of his sister properly.  Moshe’s response that they should ask the other leaders (of the thousands, hundreds, etc.) alludes back to Behaalotcha in which he asks for and is given help in carrying the burden of the Jewish people.   Bnei Yisrael’s response is essentially that it does not matter what other leaders there are, you Moshe, bear ultimate responsibility for us.  The presence of other leaders does not remove Moshe from the burden of caring for the needs of the people.

While the Midrash does not offer this as an explanation for why Moshe did not listen to Hashem and hit the rock, one can almost imagine the great frustration that Moshe felt in being called to duty, and not being able to have the peace and privacy to simply mourn for his beloved sister.

When understood in this light, the transition from Moshe to Yehoshua’s leadership was not necessarily a punishment, but simply an acknowledgement that Moshe was approaching the end of his ability to serve the people, and give of himself.

We can also appreciate Moshe’s true greatness, not only in successfully leading the people from bondage to freedom, and navigating the treacheries and difficulties of 40 years of wanderings through the wilderness, but at coming to Bnei Yisrael’s salvation again and again at great personal expense.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement (Zionist Kollels), is a Jerusalem-based organization, that sends groups of post-IDF religious Zionist students and families as emissaries to enhance Torah learning and a religious Zionist atmosphere in communities around the world. For the Torah Mitzion website, click here.