Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
The Torah portion we read this week, Vayeilech, takes place during the last days of Moses‘s life. The entire book of Deuteronomy has been a kind of summing up for Moses, and with this portion we approach the end, in which he speaks his last words to the Jewish people and appoints Joshua to take over as leader of the nation. It is in connection with this latter task, that of naming Joshua as his successor, that Moses and God seem to have a little disagreement. Moses, when addressing Joshua, says the following:
…be strong, and brave, for you will go with this nation into the land which God promised to their fathers to give to them …
A few verses later, God says almost the same thing to him:
…be strong, and brave, for you will bring the children of Israel to the land which I promised to them, and I will be with you”
See the difference? Moses places Joshua with the people; he “will go with this nation” into the Promised Land. God, on the other hand, singles Joshua out as the one who “will bring the children of Israel” into the Land of Israel. He is not with the people, as Moses has it, he is leading them. In fact, in God’s formulation, Joshua is with Him — God — and no one else.
Difference in Speeches
The Rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a), notice the difference between these two speeches and explain it this way:
Moses, when charging Joshua with the role of leader, emphasized that he will not be alone, but will be entering the land “with” the people. This refers to the fact that Joshua will not be the only leader of the nation, but, rather, will be able to rely on the advice and counsel of the elders, who represent the entire nation and will help him lead them.
God, on the other hand, explained things very differently to Joshua. He stresses that Joshua will be alone in bringing the people into the Land. If necessary, he will need to force them to do his, and God’s, will — “hit them over their heads” — as the Rabbis put it, as he stands alone as the leader of his sometimes difficult-to-lead generation.
How are we to understand this difference of opinion between God and Moses? Why does Moses present a model of rule by consensus, in which Joshua is part of a large group of wise men who, together, lead the people, whereas God presents Joshua with a much more autocratic model, in which he, alone, with only God at his side, often at odds with the very people he is meant to lead, is responsible to get the Jewish people to do the right thing and take possession of the Land of Israel?
Well, the obvious difference between God and Moses is that one of them is a person and the other is an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe. Each one of them, therefore, is speaking to Joshua about leadership from his particular point of view. Moses is presenting Joshua with a model for leadership that is human, and therefore social, communal, and consensual. In this model people do things together, as a society. The nation is represented by a group of elders, of whom Joshua is only one–first among equals perhaps, but an equal. Together, Joshua and the nation, represented by their elders, will work things out. Moses, as a human being, understands that this is the way humans are meant to function–with others, together, as a community.
God, on the other hand, has a very different perspective, one that He shares here with Joshua. This Divine perspective is more exalted, more absolute, and much lonelier. As God Himself must take ultimate responsibility for the people He has created and, in the case of the Jewish people, chosen, while being, by definition, not really very much like them, Joshua, as a leader, must also, ultimately, see himself as alone, responsible only to his duty to get the people to do the right thing, as defined by God. Unfettered by the compromises that a communal style of leadership demands, Joshua will be obedient only to the word of God and the vision that arises from that. As God says “…and I will be with you.”
In this model of leadership, Joshua is “with” God, not the people. He is, in fact, called upon to be God-like, in that he must understand that the responsibility of leadership is, ultimately, a personal responsibility, his alone, and is not divisible by consensus or community.
The Divine Style of Leadership
As the Rabbis see it, this divine style of leadership is one that is immediately suggestive of an ultimately adversarial relationship–“hit them over their heads” to get them to do the right thing. It would seem that the ‘otherness’ of the people in the divine leadership model (or the ‘otherness’ of the leader from the people’s perspective) makes this inevitable; conflict is bound to occur in a model which sees the leader as essentially separate from those he leads.
In the Talmud, these two models seem to be presented as being mutually exclusive; Moses understands Joshua’s leadership one way and God disagrees with him. I would suggest that they can, and should, coexist. It is only when both these models–the very human need to work within a consensus, within a community, as well as the divine demand for absolute personal responsibility for and obedience to the goal–are present, that Joshua, or any leader, can really lead.
The point, it seems to me, is to be able to work with the people whom one is leading, while, at the same time, understanding that, ultimately, one bears complete and total personal responsibility to the goals and aims which one hopes to achieve. To adopt only Moses’s model could lead to the very common situation of no one really taking responsibility, simply because it has been ceded to everyone. To adopt only God’s model can, and in fact, historically, often has, lead to the tragedy of alienation, dictatorship and totalitarianism.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.