Parshat Vayeilech: What's Wrong With Moses’ Leadership? | Aleph Beta

What's Wrong With Moses’ Leadership?

What's Wrong With Moses’ Leadership?


Beth Lesch


Parshat Vayeilech records Moses’ farewell speech on the last day of his life. In the opening of this speech, Moses reminds the people that he won’t be leading them into Israel and that Joshua will take over his position. But when you look closely at what Moses says about Joshua, you can’t help but ask, was Moses trying to sabotage Joshua's leadership? Or was Moses trying to warn the people about something? Join Beth Lesch and Daniel Loewenstein as the re-examine the text and discover a hidden narrative in the Torah about the dangers of leadership -- and never think about Moshe's intentions the same way again.


Beth: Hey there and welcome to Parsha Lab. This is Beth Lesch, I'm a writer here at Aleph Beta.

Daniel: And this is Daniel Loewenstein also a writer at Aleph Beta.

Beth: Before we dive in, just a few quick reminders. You guys know the drill, if you haven't already subscribed make sure you do it right now. Make sure you rate us five stars on the app so that, you know, all your friends and family will be able to find us and on to the show. So Daniel, this week we're talking about Parshat Vayeilech. Parshat Vayeilech is all of one chapter in the Torah. It's Chapter 31 of the Book of Deuteronomy. And let's just cut right to the verses, I'm going to read through the first few of them with you and then we'll stop to ask some questions of one another.

Daniel: Sounds good to me.

Beth: Daniel, can you go ahead and read the first three verses for us.

Daniel: Sure. So it starts off "vayeilech Moshe vayidabeir et hadevarim ha'eileh el kol Yisrael," Moses went and spoke all of these words. I'm not sure what these words refer to, maybe it's what's going to follow or maybe it's what happened before, whatever it is. "El kol Yisrael," to all of the children of Israel, "vayomer aleihem," and this is what he said, "ben mei'ah v'esrim shanah anochi hayom," I am 120-years-old today, "lo uchal od latzeit v'lavo," and I am no longer able to go out and come back, "v'Hashem amar eilai lo ta'avor et haYarden hazehm" and Hashem has told me that I cannot cross over the Yarden (Jordan).

So it sounds like Moses is sort of giving his farewell speech. This is the last stop on his journey through the desert, they're on the verge of entering Israel; he's old, he can no longer function as a leader and he's not allowed to cross the Jordan anyway.

"Hashem Elokecha hu over l'fanecha," Hashem your God He is passing before you. Meaning, He will lead you, so you know, sort of have no fear. "Hu yashmiyd et hagoyim ha'eileh milfanecha," He will destroy all of the nations who are before you, "virishtam," and you will inherit them, "Yehoshua hu over l'fanecha", Joshua, he will pass before you, that's interesting, "ka'asher diber Hashem" just as Hashem said.

Beth, as I am reading these I'm noticing there's a weird thing here where it says "Hashem Elokecha hu over l'fanecha" and then also "Yehoshua hu over l'fanecha" the same language in both of them.

Beth: Mm-hm and that language first appears in Verse 2, right. That the first person who's described as being over or in this case lo ta'avor is Moses himself. Moses is not going to cross over, but God and Joshua will cross over.

Daniel: Oh interesting, interesting.

Beth: I think at the very least what's going on here is that there is a parallel between Verse 2 and Verse 3. That we're meant to read those three overs as being the same action. There is something that Moses can't do in terms of his leadership, be it something larger and more metaphorical or something more physical, like actually crossing the Jordan before the people. Then there is something that God and Joshua are going to be able to do for the people in terms of their leadership. That's the parallel that I see set up.

Now the question that I want to ask you, first of all, what is Moses trying to do with these two statements? Why is he saying this to the people now? What are his concerns, what's his goal, why does he think they need to hear it? I'm 120-years-old today, like why's he telling us his age? I can no more go out and come in; God has said to me that I'm not going to cross over the Jordan, but God, He's going to cross before you, He's going to destroy the nations, you're going to dispossess them and Joshua he's going to cross over too. What is Moses' goal here? Why is he saying all of this?

Daniel: Well my first instinct is probably that this has something to do with giving the people a sense of security. Moses was their fearless leader that they could always turn to to solve all their problems, even if he got a little angry with them every once in a while about it, but there's a certain level of comfort, of knowing that Moses would sort everything out. So Moses has to tell them like look, I'm not going to be with you anymore, but don't worry because you've got God, you've got Joshua, so there's no reason to worry.

Beth: It's interesting that you say that because I have a theory and I hope to develop it over the course of this conversation, but the theory is that in some key way Moses doesn't want the people to relate to their new leadership the way that they've been relating to him. Meaning, I don't think he's just looking to say okay guys I'm going out of the picture, but I'm handing you a replacement and the replacement is going to do for you everything that I've done for you; it's all going to be the same, it's all going to be good, you're in good hands. I don't think that it exactly what he's doing.

Daniel: Right and maybe if I'm anticipating where you're getting that from, he doesn't lead be saying "Yehoshua hu over l'fanecha", but instead he emphasizes that "Hashem Elokecha hu over l'fanecha".

Beth: Yeah, that's what I noticed too and that is part of what I want to talk about. I mean Moses says okay I am going to be out of the picture, fine I get that and then he mentions these two different figures that are going to substitute for him and the two different figures are God and Joshua. What's the difference that you see, Daniel, in how these two figures are described?

Daniel: Well, I guess, the first thing I notice here that jumps out at me is that Moses is really emphasizing Hashem way more than he's emphasizing Joshua. All the conquests you're going to have to do, God's going to take care of that and Joshua, yeah, he's going to pass before you but "ka'asher diber Hashem". Right? Hashem is the one who appointed him. Even the human leader you are going to have that's really a part of Hashem's leadership too.

Beth: Mm-hm. Yeah, I see the same thing and in fact you can sort of break down the verse pretty algebraically. If you look at what Moses says about God, what is it that God is going to do for them? So He's going to do two things, number one He's going to be "over l'fanecha," He's going to cross before the people and number two He's going to destroy the nations so that we can dispossess them. Now, Joshua only gets one qualifier. Joshua, the only thing he's going to do is be over before the people, is cross before the people.

It just seems to me that crossing before the people that's something that a mortal can do, but destroying all of the nations of the land, that is something that only God can do, right. Joshua can't really rightly stand up and say okay Israel don't worry I'm going to take care of you. I'm going to make sure that we win every single military battle. A mortal man can't promise that. Ah, but if God's your leader then all of a sudden that's the kind of thing that you can promise. You see where I'm going with this?

Daniel: I think so. I think another thing that follows from what you're saying is that it's possible that Moses is trying to reorient Bnei Yisrael's (the Children of Israel's) priorities in a certain way. He's trying to encourage them not to look to human leadership for salvation.

Beth: I think that's exactly right and that's ultimately what I think is the theme of this parashah. Let's explore it a little bit further, we'll ask a couple of questions and see how it all rounds out.

Here is one question -- the next question that I want to ask you. As you said, this is Moses' farewell speech; he is about to hand the baton over to his successor. He is telling the Children of Israel I'm about to disappear from the picture, I'm not going to be your leader anymore, there's going to be a new phase of leadership and you're going to be in someone else's hands and Joshua is the guy. He is the substitute for me, he is the successor.

Now, taking a look at what Moses says about Joshua here, it just strikes me, that if what he means to do is introduce his successor, this seems like a really, sort of anticlimactic way to do it. I'll give you a story to illustrate what I mean and then we can compare the story to what we actually find in the verses. Okay. I've never been in charge of a nation before, but I think that whatever your task, if you are an outgoing leader and you're trying to bring in someone new, you want to talk them up. You want to set them up for success, you want the people to know that they are great, to extol all of their positive qualities and make it clear that they have your blessing.

I am thinking about my first job out of college, a young 22, working as a community organizer and I was supposed to be meeting with these people who were twice and triple my age. I was supposed to teach them all about how they could do their jobs better and how they could organize their communities better. So when my boss introduced me in person, by email, whatever it was, he talked about me in these glowing terms, you know, because I needed to earn the respect of the people that I was about to come in and lead.

I think people expect that kind of cue when there's an incoming leader and if you don't get that kind of cue it sort of makes you wonder, what's with this successor, does he have the chops, like what does his predecessor think of him? With that frame in mind, what do you make of what Moses says about his successor in this speech?

Daniel: Yeah, Beth. I always see these emails from companies when they have a new CEO or something like that, where they send a whole email explaining the person's background and why they are so excited for them to be joining the team and it definitely seems like that is not what's going on here.

Beth: He could have said, you know, I am so excited for you guys to formally induct Joshua as your leader. He is great, he has tons of experience, he has been with me for 40 years in the desert, he's been my servant, he was one of those guys who went out and spied out the land and he was one of only two who came back with a good report. He's really out shown everyone in his class and I think you guys are going to be in great hands.

Daniel: Beth, you know when you say it like that, it actually makes me wonder if there isn't a very simple answer here which is that they already knew Joshua. Maybe Moses didn't need to explain why he was a great guy, because he was actually pretty famous for being a great guy. He was Moses' closest student, he had already been a leader in battles, he was one of the few spies who came back and did the right thing. So maybe Moses didn't need to say anything more about him other than, oh Joshua, you know that guy right, well obviously he is the man for the job.

Beth: Yeah, you know Daniel, I think you're right; I think that's one answer. I am still a little bothered by the question, like Moses at the very least could have said Joshua son of Nun, the guy who you all know, the one who's been my right-hand man, the steadfast, the talented. He could have had some little mention of something about Joshua's pedigree. But I think what bothers me more is -- go ahead and you keep reading and now take a look at Verse 7.

Daniel: Okay. "Vayikra Moshe liYehoshua vayomer eilav l'einei kol Yisrael," Moses calls to Joshua and says to him before all of Israel, "chazak ve'ematz," strengthen yourself, "ki atah tavo et ha'am hazeh el ha'aretz asher nishba Hashem la'avotam lateit lahem," because you are the one who will be leading this nation to the land that God swore to their forefathers, "v'atah tanchilenah otam," and you will cause them to inherit it.

Beth: Now, I'll tell you what bothers me about this. Again, we're going back to this picture, you know the outgoing CEO is about to introduce his successor and all right, so he doesn't need to talk him up because the guy's been VP for the last 30 years and everyone knows and respects him but --

Daniel: I think I know what you're going to say here Beth. It's almost like you know, he is standing on the podium and he pulls up the next guy and he sort of gives him a pat on the back and says good luck and then walks off.

Beth: It's not just good luck, it's more genuine than that it's more earnest than that. It's don't worry I know you're nervous, I know you're scared, but I know that you can do this. Is that the kind of introduction that is going to inspire confidence in the new CEO? To let on, before all of the people, that the guy is nervous?

Daniel: It's a good point you're making especially because this is done very publicly. Even if Moses felt that Joshua needed a pep talk, he didn't necessarily have to give it to him in front of everyone and let everyone know that this confidence thing might be an issue.

Beth: Mm-hm, I think the answer here really comes back to what you started to say at the beginning which is that it must be that Moses's primary goal here is not to inspire the people's confidence in Joshua. Obviously he wants to set Joshua up for success, obviously he wants the people to trust in him, but, perhaps, he's trying to correct for an error; an error that plagued the tenure of his entire leadership for 40 years. That error is that time and time again people saw him as super human. They looked to him to solve their problems and to be the intermediary between them and God.

Maybe Moses is thinking to himself, I don't want to see that in the next generation. The way that the people have been relating to me -- there was something problematic about that and I want, in some way, to demote the status of leadership in this next generation. To somehow rectify the balance -- rectify the triangle between the people, their human leader and their God in heaven.

Daniel: So Beth, if I understand you correctly, are you suggesting that Moses was deliberately trying to shake the people's confidence in Joshua so that it would be easier for them to lean on God?

Beth: I'm not going that far, no. I don't think that he was actively undermining Joshua, not at all. But I do think that the primary emphasis in this speech and his primary goal -- you know, if you'd ask him Moses at the end of today you'll be successful if you've done what? And his answer is going to be if I have inspired the people to turn towards God as their primary leader. Joshua is going to be an able, capable successor for me, but Joshua is not a god right, and there were times when the people saw me as a god.

And you know Daniel, I think that if you look through earlier parts of the Children of Israel's story in the desert for these past 40 years, as the Chumash describes it, if you look thought this lens, you see it coming up over and over again, this idea that the people were really treating Moses as a god when they should have treated him as a human leader. Think back to the story of the mahn (manna) that we get in Exodus, Chapter 16.

The people have just left Egypt, they've just sang the song of the sea and all of a sudden they're hungry and they turn to Moses and Aaron and they say you know, we're hungry. Moses and Aaron basically say to them why are you complaining to me -- why are you complaining to us? We're not God. God the all-powerful one, the one who just took you out of Egypt, He's the one who's going to bring the bread for you, you know; we're not God.

Daniel: It's almost as if though the Children of Israel expected Moses to be the one to deliver the food to them and Moses had to try to correct that and say that I really have nothing to do with it.

Beth: Exactly, exactly and in some ways you see the greatest example of this in the story of the people's greatest sin in the desert, in the story of the golden calf. There Moses is, he's up on the top of Mount Sinai, he's gone for all of these days and the people start to think that maybe their fearless human leader has abandoned them. What do they say at that point? This is Exodus, Chapter 32 -- what do they say -- what's their intention for building this golden calf?

Daniel: I think they say that they want Aaron to make a god for them because Moses is not there and they don't know what happened to him.

Beth: Exactly.

Daniel: What you're saying is that in order to replace Moses they needed to make a god. By extension that means that they thought he was a god.

Beth: Exactly, we thought Moses was our god, and not just any god, the God that brought us out of Egypt, right. But it turns out Moses has been gone all this time; it turns out Moses is not a god he's just a man, we were wrong so we need a new god; Aaron will you make us a new god? You know that seems to be what's going on. I don't know, Daniel, what's problematic about that? Why doesn't Moses want the people to see him as a god?

Daniel: Well, I would assume it's because the Children of Israel are meant to have a relationship with God. They're supposed to follow His laws faithfully and appreciate what He does for them and recognize that He created the world and all the things that He did. The more distance you create between yourself and God the easier it is to forget about Him and to forget that it's not about appeasing your leader or giving him the right honors. There's no substitute -- there's no way you can circumvent the need to have that relationship and to follow His laws, and to let them guide you to be the kind of people that you're meant to be.

Beth: I think you really put your finger on it. You know, this whole business of elevating Moses to the status of god, it's not just an expression of the people's vote of confidence in Moses. It's a perhaps subconscious expression of their fear to contract with God directly. So they raise up this intermediary and they say he is the god and he can save us from all of our troubles and then you don't need to talk to God directly. As you said God wants a relationship with us, you can't have a relationship with someone that you don't interact with, that you don't talk to.

The people have put this monkey in the middle between them and there's something really damning about it and I think Moses looking back over the course of his life -- it's like to a certain extent, even if he kept pushing the people away from him, even if he kept saying guys, stop talking to me, stop complaining to me, it’s God you should be talking to. At a certain point, with leaders, I think we get into these patterns that are hard to break. It's hard, 20 years through your tenure as the leader of Israel in the desert, to say up until this point guys you've treated me as a god and now it's time to change things. It's hard to shift gears, but the bringing in of a new leader, that kind of leadership transition moment, that's when you can do this.

I don't know what you're going to make of this example, but I'm thinking back to the fact that, you know, in one of my former jobs I was the director of a wonderful non-profit organization. When I came into the job my predecessor said to me, look I've been here for five years and I love this organization, but here are the three things about it that I've been dying to fix and I haven't been able to fix them because we're stuck in our old ways. But you're coming in fresh so now you can fix them, you can make the meetings start on time; I've lost my capital to be able to do that, but you can. So maybe Moses sees this as a possibility with Joshua to really correct something that's been itching him about his tenure for a long time.

Daniel: You know, Beth, as I am hearing you talk about this theory about what Moses was trying to accomplish by presenting Joshua to the people the way he did, my mind can't help but go to Sefer Shoftim, to the Book of Judges and think about how that really all went wrong. How there are a few instances there where the people are being oppressed by the foreign nations living among them and they call for a leader and at least towards the beginning of the book a lot of the leaders insist to them that you need to follow God and I'm not really your leader, God is your leader and the people say whatever, just fix the problem for us and as soon as the problem is fixed then they forget about God again. It really makes me sad, to think that, you know, Moses may have been trying to stop that, but it didn't really go anywhere.

Beth: Daniel, I think you're right about the Book of Judges. I think your diagnosis is spot on there, but let's go earlier in Jewish history. If you look at the Book of Joshua, which is the book that follows this farewell speech of Moses, how would you say that Moses did? Was he successful in setting up Joshua's leadership tenure in a way that was healthy? Did he strike the right balance, based on how you see the people treating Joshua?

Daniel: That's actually a really good point; I don't know why I sort of mentally skipped over that. But, yeah, if you think about what happens in the Book of Joshua there really is a cohesiveness, a faithfulness, a couple of scares, but really nothing terrible happens in terms of the Children of Israel being faithful to God in carrying out His will and doing what they needed to do in the land. Maybe that means that Moses' strategy worked?

Beth: Umm, or it worked at least for a generation, right. The inspiration wore off after a while and people returned to their natural instincts and their natural inclinations, but maybe for a while it really did serve its purpose. But I don't know, I don't even know if I agree with what I just said. I mean is this a natural instinct? Do you think in human nature that people are always going to want to take their leaders around them and elevate them to the status of demi-gods, is that something you see yourself doing? Is that something that you see happening in Jewish life today?

Daniel: You know, Beth, that's a very sharp and I think a very important question. I don't know if I'm in the position to diagnose the ills of society today, but I do think that you actually find that it can be a problem and also its opposite can be a problem too. I think on the one hand, a lot of people in the Jewish world sometimes invest a lot of faith in their leaders to a point where it can get problematic. To a point where, let's say, if someone's faulted they're not willing to see it.

There have been a lot of really sad stories about people who were considered great men and then something came to light, some sort of scandal and their followers weren't willing to believe it and even got violent in defending these people. Because, you know, probably they just attributed some super elevated status to them and weren't willing to consider that maybe they're human and maybe they're flawed and maybe then these accusations against them are right.

Beth: Right, right

Daniel: I'm not saying that in every instance they are, because people who are in the spotlight do also attract a lot of attention and a lot of false accusations, but sometimes they're not false and sometimes there's proof.

Beth: You know, it's interesting that you say that because on the one hand I want to say, oh God forbid I'm not one of those people. I'm able to be open minded about my leaders and if someone, you know, had good reason to make an accusation against them I'd be able to see it with wide open eyes and understand that they're mortal. So I want to say that, but the truth is I'm noticing in myself a certain hypocrisy when it comes to this issue.

Because on the one hand intellectually I definitely believe that leaders are real people and they're flawed and we should see them that way and that if we ever intend to use them as examples that are going to inspire us to become like them, we're going to have to see them as mortal. If your leaders are perfect you could never compare yourself to them and then they're not useful as a model for emulation. So intellectually I believe that, but on the ground when I think about some of the great role models and mentors in my life -- obviously the closer you get to someone, the more you come to know about them, the more you come in touch with their flaws and with their mortality and there's always something, at least for me, which is uncomfortable about coming in touch with those things.

My experience of it isn't liberating; woo hoo, now I know that my great teacher who I respected for so long is mortal and I can learn to be like her. It's like, oh man there is something lost here, like there was this picture of perfection that was a beacon in my life and now it's broken and there is something sad about that. I don't know, I'm kind of grappling with those two things. Can you relate to that at all?

Daniel: So Beth, I definitely can relate to it, but actually, for me, I think that I sometimes more have the opposite problem. Sometimes I can be maybe a little bit too suspicious or too resistant to authority and sort of closely guard my independence and think that if I'm going to relate to God it's going to be on my own terms and it's going to be in the way that I understand the Torah. Then sometimes that makes me wonder what place mentors have or teachers have and I sometimes sort of struggle with that. Because, you know, what if there's somebody who is a very respected person, who I think is a very smart person, who says something that I disagree with. How do I find the space to be humble enough to hear someone else's perspective, someone who in all likelihood is wiser than I am, but at the same time stay faithful to the things that I think that I know?

Beth: You know, I really like the way that you portrayed that, wondering whether or not there is a role at all for role models and mentors in your life. I think that Moses is speaking to both of us, he's basically saying look guys there's a balance. On the one hand I want you to be transacting with God primarily, but there's still a role for a leader; he doesn't take leadership out of the picture all together. He says I'm going to have a successor and he is going to go before you and you can go talk to him about your problems and you can look to him as a source of inspiration. There's that real balance being struck, I think.

All right, Daniel, it's time for us to wind down our conversation, but I think that there's a really tantalizing possibility left here at the end for us and what I want to do is charge our listeners with an assignment. Go through the rest of Parshat Vayeilech at your leisure and see if you can see the parashah through this lens. See if you can see ways in which the rest of the parashah is telling the same story. The story of us being too reliant on our leaders and needing to wean off, needing to not see them as demi-gods, and ultimately learning a new way of transacting directly with God, not experiencing God through the filter of Moses. Please come back and report to us about what you find. I think there are some very fun implications there and Daniel thanks for going back and forth with me.

Daniel: Thank you Beth, this was amazing.

Beth: As always we want to hear from you so please write in to us We get those notes, we love reading them and if you haven't already it's time to subscribe, it's time to rate us five stars on the app and it is time to write a heartfelt letter to all of your friends and family telling them how much you enjoy listening to Pasha Lab every week. Until the next time.

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