Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Va'etchanan
To dedicate this lesson

Follow the Leader


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Av 10 5780
"Hashem became angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Jordan, that I would not enter the good land that Hashem has given to you as a heritage. I will die in this land. I am not crossing the Jordan, but you are; you will possess this good land." (4:21-22)

Moshe, understandably, is upset, disappointed, distraught. He so much wanted to enter Israel, along with the nation. That would be the crowning achievement of his career. It would be the opportunity to fulfill Mitzvot that cannot be kept outside of Israel. It would be the answer to his many prayers and pleas to Hashem. But it was not to be; a new generation coming into a new land would have a new leader.

But what is so hard to comprehend is why Moshe blames the people for this! After all, Moshe is (ostensibly) being punished for striking the rock at Mei M'riva, rather than speaking to it; wasn't that his offense, and not the nation's? True, the people did anger Moshe with all their many complaints, but it seems that Hashem criticizes Moshe, not Bnei Yisrael, for what happens there. So why shift the blame to the people? It seems so out of character for the man who spent his life nurturing and defending us!

Some want to suggest that Moshe is saying, "Had you, the nation, not supported the negative report of the Spies, then we would have immediately entered Israel, rather than be punished with 40 years of wandering. Then the incident of the rock never would have even occurred, and all of us - you and me - would have straightaway come into the land!

But I want to suggest something else, something that is more in keeping with the kind of leader Moshe was.

I believe Moshe is saying to the people, "My fate is inextricably interwoven with your fate. I may be the leader, but I am just one of you - we are one nation. If you can't go into Israel, then neither can I. We rise - and we fall - as one." This, consistently, is the Moshe who earlier described Israel as, "Ha-am asher anochi b'kirbo - the nation of which I am but one." (Bamidbar 11:21).

Moshe is not just being humble; he is teaching us that the nation comes first, and that the leader's greatness is a direct product of the nation's greatness. If we are at a high level, we will surely produce leaders who are themselves superior. But if we are not up to the task, we will be governed by those who reflect our own shortcomings, and we will pay the price for it..

Winston Churchill was one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century. On many occasions, he remarked how he drew his strength and stamina from the courage and conduct of the British people, who heroically withstood "the Blitz" and the Battle of Britain, when England's citizenry was mercilessly bombed night and day by the Nazis. They held fast, they would not kneel to tyranny, and this inspired Churchill also to never give in.

Moshe is leaving us with a crucial message for the rest of history: When leaders fail, it is because we have failed. And when leaders persevere and succeed, it is directly due to our own success as a nation. We are the mirror that reflects our destiny.
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