Devarim - 8 Av, 5781
At the beginning of the fifth book of our Torah, Deuteronomy (or Devarim in Hebrew), Moses delivers a series of sermons concerning the exploits of our forefathers and foremothers in the wilderness. This is a significant departure from the books of Exodus and Numbers where Moses’ primary responsibility was to be the transmitter of God’s words to the community. The children of Israel now stand poised on the other side of the Jordan-on the precipice of the land that God has given their ancestors as an inheritance. Their leader Moses will not accompany them on this final journey. His ability to imprint these words must have surely been daunting, and there is much to observe about his leadership skills throughout this book which is informative about him as a man.
First, and maybe most obviously, it is important to state that Moses is not deity. He is imperfect. And although he transmits the complex ethical and moral law of our people, the majority of Reform Jews do not believe he is the author of them-simply the mouthpiece of a higher power. His prophetic status is not in question for us as moderns, although he is constantly challenged by the people he has led out of Egypt. In fact, one of the reasons given for the tradition that we do not know his burial site is because of the very real concern that it would be turned into a worship site and would elevate Moses to more than mortal.
In doing some reading about Moses, I stumbled upon a Drash that Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave regarding a different Torah portion which struck me as particularly relevant. He says:
“Each age produces its leaders, and each leader is a function of an age. There may be – indeed there are – certain timeless truths about leadership. A leader must have courage and integrity. He must be able, say the sages, to relate to each individual according to his or her distinctive needs. Above all, a leader must constantly learn (a king must study the Torah “all the days of his life”). But these are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. A leader must be sensitive to the call of the hour – this hour, this generation, this chapter in the long story of a people. And because he or she is of a specific generation, even the greatest leader cannot meet the challenges of a different generation. That is not a failing. It is the existential condition of humanity.”
So how does Moses stack up on that point? In fact, the book begins with a hopeful strategy. The first verse says, "These are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan." As you have heard many say before, there are no superfluous words in Torah. The fact that the verse says "all” Israel," as opposed to simply "Israel" prompted the Chassidic rabbi Simchah Bunem to comment, "Moses addressed each one according to [his/her] character and age, understanding and level of perception, and measure."
Moses' ability to speak to each soul in that assembly (and one could argue that he is continually addressing us) allows all Jews to feel part of the greater whole. The more attention paid to the individual, the more likely the individual will listen and participate.
However, what I find most interesting in this parasha is Moses’ candor.
One of the stories of our ancestor’s travels recounts a painful chapter, that of the refusal of the spies to go forth and give a positive report of the land they are to inhabit. What is remarkable to me is Moses' admission that he is overburdened by the task at hand, and readily admits it.
See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.
Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.
The LORD your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky.—
May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you.—
How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!
Pick from each of your tribesmen who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.”
You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.”
Now this is not the only time which Moses delegates. In fact, it is not Moses, but his father-in-law who suggests it in the first place. (Additionally, it is interesting to note that his father-in-law, Yitro, has a Torah portion that bears his name which is not too shabby for a Midianite Priest.) More to the point, Yitro watches the endless stream of disputes that Moses has to adjudicate. Yitro asked: "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you do it alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" (Exodus 18:14) He continues, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18) Yitro’s suggestion to share the burden helps Moses frame the mission at hand by establishing this important precedent.
Additionally, in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors), we learn more about the importance of each person doing their part: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly." (Pirke Avot 1:1) Quite simply, the growth of our nation would not have been sustained had the burden not been shared. The empowerment of others established broader shoulders and created a tradition that is enriched by the sum of its parts. This ensures our continuity as a people, and allows for our growth as a community as well.
One of the best things we can do as human beings is recognize our interdependence on one another. Our strength must not come from shouldering the burden alone, but by supporting each other to create the world we wish to see. Lest hubris dictate a loss of humility, it is imperative to realize the words of the Midrashic Commentary Deuteronomy Rabbah (1:10) “A community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.”
Michelle Drucker Friedman