Devarim / פרשת דברים
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
I wrote the following devar Torah (word of Torah) in June 2015 while on a family road trip. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but every day is a family road trip of sorts. As individuals, communities, and nations, we are always on the move. Each day presents new challenges and new opportunities. We can’t always know when the next pandemic, flood or political crisis will appear. We also can’t always know when we’ll see the next rainbow, celebrate a birth, or land our dream job. In effect, we all write our words of Torah in the midst of life as we live it, on the road trip of life.
We are facing unprecedented challenges in our world today, challenges that make it difficult to plan and embark on a road trip that is fun and enjoyable. Floods, wildfires, deadly heat, Covid-19, warfare, social unrest are just some of the roadblocks that we face. Now, more than ever, human beings need to realize that we’re all on this trip together. Though the forces of nature and the will to power by narrow-minded, hard-hearted rulers and lawmakers may exacerbate our differences and cause further division, we the people must strive to stay connected across the great divide. We must not lose sight of the Divine spark in our rivals, lest they become our enemies. And we must not only muster restraint in confronting our enemies, but actively work to create a world that permits our enemies to become no more than rivals, if not friends.
This piece from 2015 speaks about the importance of compassionate leadership in times of travail. Moses seldom met those who contested his leadership or lost faith in God with compassion. Yes, he argued with God not to destroy the entire People, but he never empathized with those who disagreed with him. In this essay, I credit Moses for sowing the seeds of compassion as the Israelites are about to overtake Canaan, but I wonder how the journey might have been different had Moses shown such compassion all along. Perhaps the journey would have taken only a year or two. Perhaps the generation of adult males who left Egypt would have lived to enter the Land. Perhaps Moses himself would have been privileged to accompany the People into that Land. Perhaps we would have inherited a kinder, gentler Torah without so much killing and without endless portrayals of the basest aspects of human nature.
I’ve couched my comments in terms of leadership. In truth, we all have the capacity to lead and we must exercise that capacity daily. This is the meaning of being a “light unto the nations” and “a holy nation and kingdom of priests.” May we all exercise compassionate leadership every day of life’s road trip.
This week we begin reading the last of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy or Devarim, which comprises Moses’s final speech, a pep talk of sorts, to the People of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. He reminds Israel of their trials and tribulations during their 40-year sojourn from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River, highlights key commandments revealed by God along the way, and exhorts Israel to remain faithful to their covenant with God.
As Moses begins to address Israel’s fateful insistence on spying out Canaan and their subsequent lack of faith that they could succeed in conquering the land, Moses says:
We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God had commanded us. (Deuteronomy 1:19)
“The great and terrible wilderness?” What could Moses mean by this phrase and why would he include it here? I believe the answers to these questions present a lesson about leadership, in general, and Moses’s leadership, in particular.
According to Rashi, the French medieval commentator, the wilderness is termed terrible because “in it were serpents as [thick as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows” (Sifrei). Surely, though, that is only part of the reason. Indeed, while the wilderness would have been home to countless venomous, frightful creatures, nowhere in Torah do we hear people complaining to Moses that there are too many snakes and scorpions. Rather, the people feared both a lack of food and water and the threat of attack. Regardless of what Rashi speculates or what the Israelites themselves murmured about, the reality was that the wilderness was a dangerous, inhospitable place for much of Israel’s journey. Moses, therefore, is exhibiting what a high school teacher of mine once called “a firm grasp of the obvious.”
What’s remarkable about Moses’s observation is that heretofore Moses hadn’t acknowledged the harsh conditions in which Israel found themselves. All those times when the people complained about the paucity of food, water, and safety, Moses responded out of anger and frustration: “How dare you challenge God’s plan after all God has done for you!” Moses never empathized with his followers. As a consequence of his lack of compassion throughout the trek, Moses created a gulf between him and his followers that the people filled will animosity and resentment.
Had Moses once conceded, “I know life is hard for us now. We are in a strange, foreboding place. Of course, you are miserable,” just maybe the malcontents in his midst would have seen Moses as one of them, as someone who shares their suffering, as someone who “gets” them. Had Moses exhibited an ounce of empathy, perhaps the masses wouldn’t have pushed him so hard to produce water that he would strike a rock not once, but twice, insult the people in his charge, and forfeit his chance to enter the Holy Land with them.
Is Moses’s acknowledgement of the people’s hardship this late in the game worthless? Is it too little too late? He certainly can’t go back in time and become a different leader. He can’t now create a culture of compassion and cooperation that hadn’t existed previously. Nonetheless, Moses’s recognition of the harshness of the wilderness at this point does serve an important function. As Israel readies itself to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land, Moses reminds them of all they’ve overcome to reach this moment. “You made it through the wilderness with God’s help and your own determination. Have confidence that you can now complete the journey into the Land to which God has led you.” Coming from a person who hadn’t previously connected to the people he had been leading, this message would now embolden Israel to fulfill the next stage of its mission.
Leaders can learn from both Moses’s mistakes and his successes. Leaders can more easily lead when they connect on a personal level with their charges. Leaders can avoid accusations of indifference and aloofness by empathizing with their charges as they face “great and terrible” circumstances. At the same time, leaders can effectively motivate their communities by holding before them a mirror, by reminding them all they are capable of.
This week we see something that Moses did well, and we should give him due credit. Imagine, though, how different our nation’s story might have been had Moses shown the people of Israel such compassion earlier on in their journey.
Rabbi Daniel Aronson