Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Much of the Book of Deuteronomy is taken up with Moses‘ farewell address to the Israelite nation. He has served his people as their leader in every sphere: military, administrative, judicial and spiritual. Now, he reviews the events of the 40 wilderness years, and presents, from his own perspective, a report of how he has led the nation.
Moses does not offer a dispassionate review of the past; to the contrary, he rebukes the nation for its failings.
It falls to midrash to examine Moses’ words and not only offer interpretations of his meanings, but to construct leadership principles based on what he has said and done. A number of midrashim, taken together, use Moses as an example of what constitutes ideal leadership. Three components stand out: his views on what a leader must avoid; on the necessity of many people sharing leadership tasks; and on the core attributes of a leader.
In response to the question of what right Moses had to rebuke his people, one of Moses’ earlier statements is cited. When Moses defended himself against charges of self-interest leveled at him by the rebellious Korah, he replied: “I have not taken a single donkey, nor done evil to anyone.” (Numbers 16:15) This midrash, in other words, emphasizes what a leader must not do; one must not use a position of power to steal from the populace or otherwise harm them. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:5) This is to politicians what the Hippocratic oath is to physicians: first, do no harm.
In his address to the people, Moses tells them that he was not able, by himself, to bear the burden of acting as judge in all cases. He required that additional judges be appointed so as to have a more manageable case-load. A midrash turns this necessity into a virtue. It states that, as a matter of settled law, a rabbi or judge of a community may not administer justice alone. Only God judges alone. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10) Ideal leadership is not a solo act. It is more like an ensemble.
The third area has to do with the personal qualities that a judge or, by extrapolation, other types of leaders must possess. The account in the opening chapter of Deuteronomy of the start of the Israelite judicial system is the second time the issue is dealt with in the Torah.
In the Book of Exodus, the idea of delegating authority is attributed to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. A midrash asks why in the Book of Exodus version, (18:21) four attributes of a judge are mentioned, while in Deuteronomy (1:13), three are listed. The answer offered is that the lists must be combined to yield a total of seven attributes, with a judge having all seven. However, if the community can find candidates with only four of these attributes, or even only three, those candidates should be made judges.
What if a potential judge has just one of these attributes? He should be chosen, only if he possesses the quality of hayyil— valor, strength, or capability. Another verse in the Bible also cites the quality of hayyil as constituting the core value of a woman of valor, adding, “who can find her?” (Proverbs 31:10) It is significant that this particular Biblical verse is chosen, given that in traditional Jewish law, women may not serve as judges.
Returning to the issue of leader as rebuker, the midrash inserts a line that does not actually appear in the Biblical text. God is imagined as saying, “Moses, you have rebuked the people. They have accepted the rebuke meekly, now bless them.” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:9)
It is relevant to assess leadership in the Jewish community today in view of these midrashic descriptions of ideal leadership inspired by Moses’ farewell speech. Most people would agree that communal leaders should do no harm and should be capable. Yet what about promoting a model of shared leadership? In a variety of Jewish institutions, this model is not yet in place. As for the quality of knowing both how to rebuke as well as how to bless people, that skill, in most cases, needs further cultivation.