Leadership As a Balancing Act

No other Biblical character so often subordinated his own will to serve both Israel and its God as Moses did.

Moses art 521 (do not use) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Moses art 521 (do not use)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
NO MATTER HOW STEADFASTLY MOSES tried to serve as his people’s champion, his people never learned to rely on his loyalty to them.
Though he risked everything when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating an Israelite slave, the Israelites who witnessed his actions rebuked him as an overlord, not as their protector. Though he fled to Midian as a fugitive from Pharaoh’s vengeance, his hosts labeled him first and foremost an Egyptian. One midrash even cites Moses’ failure to correct Jethro’s daughters when they described him to their father as an Egyptian as the reason that Moses was eventually denied entry into the Promised Land (Tanhuma B. II, 134).
Given his ambiguous origins – first, as the hidden child of Israelite slaves; then as the adopted grandson of Pharaoh; next, as a penniless immigrant in Midian; and finally, as a rebel leader returned from foreign exile – it is not surprising that Moses was always regarded as a suspicious alien. Where was his true homeland? Who were his people? To which god did he swear fealty? No wonder the Israelites rebelled against his authority for 40 years! But though the Israelites continuously challenged Moses’ status as their leader, he remained forever faithful to them. In the portion of Nitzavim, he addresses them before his death, attempting, in a magnanimous act of generosity to this persistently ungrateful people, to guarantee their future welfare by binding them to God through a renewal of the covenant that God had long ago contracted with the Patriarchs.
He assures them that God will continue to love them – though they don’t always return that love. He assures them that God will continue to honor the divine end of the bargain – though they betray theirs. For this precious covenant, Moses explains to them, is everlasting, transferred not only from their ancestors to them, “those who are standing here with us this day,” but also to their descendants, “those who are not with us here this day.”
More significant than what Moses says to the people is what he avoids speaking about: the promises he made to his unruly flock during the past 40 years, and kept. Though he repeatedly invokes the patriarchs – both by name and by the term “fathers” – as guarantors of the ancient covenant, he never invokes his own name as such a guarantor. By this omission, he implies that he lacks the moral suasion to move the Israelites to bind themselves to God’s commandments, now or in the future.
Moses’ realization about how distant he and the people have grown from each other stirs him profoundly, as he reveals by his repeated use of the word “heart” – 10 times in only 39 verses. After 40 years as their leader, Moses is indeed heartbroken to leave them and to be left behind. In fact, we can read, in Moses’ lament over the Israelites’ future infidelities toward God, his own lament – probably unconscious – over their past infidelities toward him.
The key to understanding Moses’ internal drama as he delivers these brief but decidedly ambivalent remarks to the people lies in paying close attention to the pronouns he uses throughout.
Sometimes he speaks to the people as “you”; other times, he includes himself among them by using the first person plural. He vacillates between references to “your God” versus “our God.” He speaks as God by “enjoining” the people in the first person singular; yet at other times, he speaks about God or quotes God’s directives in the third person. It’s as though Moses does not know where to throw his weight as he balances on the fulcrum between heaven and earth. Is he in the people’s corner or in God’s? Perhaps the most revealing moment comes in the verse I quoted above: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
Although he starts off speaking in God’s voice, he quickly throws in his lot with the people, placing himself “here with us this day,” descending from the mountain to stand side by side with them in the shadow of the divine cloud.
No wonder Moses is most often referred to as “servant” in Jewish tradition. No other Biblical character so often subordinated his own will to serve both Israel and its God.
This commentary appeared previously in The Jerusalem Report.