Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
What does it take to be a good leader? In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeilech, we encounter two prominent leaders of the Jewish people — Moses, whose term is winding down, and the young, energetic Joshua, gearing up to take over.
Moses was surely a good leader. He freed us from enslavement in Egypt, listened to us kvetching in the desert for 40 years, delivered to us the Torah, and managed to lead us to the edge of the Promised Land. What made him a powerful leader? Was it because he could talk to God? I think it’s more than that.
Moses possessed great humility. I am sure he never doubted that he would be the one to lead the Jews into the land of Israel. Yet when God told Moses that he was to die in the desert, and that Joshua was to replace him and lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land, Moses did not rebel. Moses could have been angry and hostile about this turn of events, but instead he helped Joshua to transition into his leadership role. Like a true leader, Moses knew his time was up, and he was understanding and humble.
Moses publicly appoints Joshua to his new post when he announces God’s decree in Deuteronomy 31:7. Moses summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel:
Be strong and courageous, for you shall come with these people to the land that Hashem swore to their forefathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it. HaShem — it is He who goes before you; He will be with you; He will not release you nor will He forsake you; do not be afraid and do not be dismayed.
At this public passing of the torch, the people see Moses’ confidence and endorsement of their new leader. This comforts the people as they lose the only leader they have ever known and assures them they will be looked after. Moses’ words must have also helped Joshua to feel up to the task of leading the Jews.
Every good leader should find a suitable replacement. If you leave your post without adequately doing so, you have not done your job well. Therefore, Moses must also be a teacher, Joshua a good student. Joshua took his “leadership training” very seriously.
Rashi noted that Joshua studied, he was loyal to the Israelites, and he showed good judgment. Joshua was judicious, careful, slow to act, and sensitive to differences of opinion. Rashi said that, “While forming his own conclusions, Joshua is a person who listens and learns from others. He is a man who knows how to stand up against the spirit of each one of them (and who knows how) to teach us that to be tolerant does not necessarily imply passivity or spinelessness.”
A good leader must know this own mind; he must be able to stand up for his views; and he also must be capable of changing his mind and of freeing himself from preconceived ideas. He must not be the type who declares: My mind is made up — don’t confuse me with facts” (Pinchas H. Peli, Torah Today p. 186). Joshua, unlike Moses, who was punished for striking the rock in anger, was thoughtful and slow to act. Perhaps this is why God felt he possessed the traits needed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Rashi’s comments about Joshua ring true, especially in today’s politically charged environment about Israel where peoples’ views differ greatly. A good leader must keep an open mind and be open to greater knowledge in order to help him or her reach a decision. A good leader must interact with the community and do what is best on the people’s behalf–even if it’s not always a “popular decision.” A good leader may know that the tasks that lie ahead may not be easy but takes charge anyway because they are resolute in their purpose. God was with Joshua, as I believe God is with all leaders who are striving to do good.
Some synonyms for leadership are guardianship, guidance, stewardship, governorship and command. These words may define Moses and Joshua, but do they define our leaders today? Should we hold our present day leaders to the same standards we did these leaders of the past? The prominent figures in the Torah can serve as role models for today’s leaders. It’s important to choose our leaders wisely in hopes that they may resemble the leaders whose guidance has brought us to where we are today.
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Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: hah-SHEMM, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “the name,” word used to refer to God.