Moses as a Leader of the People

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin , the chief rabbi of Efrat, has an excellent article published in The Jerusalem Post dealing with Moses’ leadership of the people of Israel. His study is based on Numbers 13:20: “And you shall strengthen yourselves, and you shall take from the fruits of the land; and the days were when the first grapes became ripe.”

The text below is Rabbi Riskin’s conclusion:

What Moses may have failed to realize is that the real problem lay not with the Israelite gastronomic drive but rather with Moses’ form of “long-distance” leadership – either from the lofty heights of Mount Sinai or the inner sanctuary of the Tent of Communion. We should keep in mind that initially Moses rejects God’s command to lead because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This cannot only mean that he stuttered and stammered – because God’s immediate response is, “Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?” and yet Moses continues to speak of having “stopped up lips” (aral sfatayim).

I would like to suggest that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of “heavy speech” rather than a man of “friendly chatter,” a prophet of theology and law, morality and ethics, in constant touch with the divine. Moses’s intellect actually “kisses” the divine intellect, until his Torah becomes God’s Torah (Guide for the Perplexed). Moses is not a man of the people, a man of small talk who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites, a Madison Avenue product. The Bible itself testifies: “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult divine service” (Ralbag’s interpretation to Exodus 6:9). Moses, the “man [or husband] of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1) as well as the “servant of the Lord,” remains “distant” from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations rather than a leader for his own generation.

Indeed, Moses does not walk among the people; he speaks to the Lord from within the Tent of Communion (Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89). It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment (Numbers 11:26). Moses’ greatest asset – his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” the divine will – is also the cause of his remoteness from the masses. If a congregation is to rise above petty squabbles and materialistic goals, it must be constantly reinspired.

The kvetching of the people goes beyond a craving for leeks and onions; it’s the existential kvetch of not knowing what they want. In truth, they actually need – as we all do – a mission, a purpose for being. As it prepares to enter the Promised Land, the nation needs to be recharged with light strong enough to illuminate the world. This, however, will have to await a new leader, perhaps less a man of God and more a man of the people.

I recommend that you read Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s study in its entirety by visiting The Jerusalem Post online.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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