The arduous journey was finally coming to an end.
The Jewish people had wandered through the desert for forty years: years filled with ups and downs, complaints and miracles, awesome accomplishments, and tragic disappointments (much like life itself).
Through all their tribulations, the Jewish people were not alone. G-d provided them with the greatest leaders who ever lived – Moshe, assisted by his siblings, Aharon and Miriam. All three were not destined to enter the land of Israel with the Jewish people.
Upon being informed that he would not enter the Holy Land, Moshe asked G-d to supply the Jewish people with a worthy successor, “so the assembly of G-d will not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Moshe’s analogy of leadership to a shepherd was not random. The Midrash teaches that Moshe’s first encounter with G-d resulted from his being a faithful shepherd – literally. Moshe was tending to the flock of his father-in-law, Yitro, when one sheep strayed from the flock. Moshe chased after it and found it drinking from a brook. Moshe lovingly picked it up and carried it back, ‘apologizing’ to the sheep that he didn’t realize it was weary and thirsty. Seeing this, G-d proclaimed, “The one who has mercy even on sheep is worthy to shepherd My beloved flock – the children of Israel.” That is what a Jewish leader is – a caring shepherd to the Jewish people.
Based on today’s standards, Moshe might not have even gotten a job as a rabbi – he probably wouldn’t have made it past the search committee! Think about it: what do we look for in our leaders? Whether seeking the ideal candidate to lead the free world or guide our local synagogue, we are inevitably drawn to relatively superficial qualities. Often, we appreciate oratorical skill more than the ideas behind the words, confidence over character, and drama over deeds. We want someone to look us in the eye and say they can get the job done, regardless of whether or not they have any record of accomplishment that would indicate they could actually do so.
As the Torah makes clear, leadership was the furthest thing from Moshe’s mind. When approached by G-d to take the leadership role, he hid his face in humility and begged G-d to choose someone more worthy. The Torah also tells us that this spiritual giant, destined to stand up to kings, couldn’t even speak without stuttering. Why was he chosen?
Despite being raised among royalty, Moshe left it all behind to contemplate the burdens of his people. But he did more than contemplate — he acted.
When Moshe saw an Egyptian hurting a Jew, he acted; when he observed one Jew hurting another, he acted. And then, despite being chased out of the country for defending the underdog, he continued to take action. While in exile, he noticed strangers, not from his people, being oppressed, and he once again stood up to defend them.
And then, in his job as a shepherd, he protected every individual sheep.
Remarkably, none of this affected his sense of humility. He felt unworthy of leadership, which is why he was chosen to be a leader. In Talmudic literature, Moshe is referred to as “Moshe Rabbeinu” – “Moshe, our teacher”; in Biblical literature, he is described as “eved Hashem” – a “servant of G-d.” Indeed, he was both.
In the Kabbalistic literature, Moshe is known as the “Raya Mehemna” – the “faithful shepherd,” and in searching for a successor who would faithfully take care of his people, Moshe taught us that this is what true leadership is all about. Only leaders who truly care for those they lead can have their message heard.
Something to think about next time we choose our elected leaders.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.