Friday, June 26, 2015

Parsha: What was Moshe's Sin? Lessons in Leadership

Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky

The Torah (Bamidbar Chap. 20) records the events surrounding Bnei Yisrael's request for water. Moshe and Aharon received instructions from Hashem and they eventually brought water to the Jewish people. Yet, something went wrong, and Hashem informed Moshe and Aharon that they would not be able to enter Eretz Yisrael. 

What exactly was Moshe's sin? While there are certain indications in the Pesukim, there are a range of answers found in the classical Mefarshim. Ohr HaChaim (Bamidbar 20:8) even mentions ten different explanations, and some later Mefarshim have found even more. 

We will highlight two general perspectives, each with an important lesson about Jewish leadership. 

1. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:12) famously states that Moshe's sin was in hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. He could have sanctified God's name by showing the Jewish people that even an inanimate object (such as a rock) listens to God. If so, certainly the Jews should listen to Hashem. An additional explanation is suggested by Rambam (Shemoneh Perakim chap. 6, cited by Ohr HaChaim and others) and others. They explain that Moshe was angry when speaking to Klal Yisrael. 

What both of those approaches highlight is that leadership is not always about getting results. It's also about the process, the manner in which it is done. The Jewish people got water, but there was a problem in how they got it. Effective leadership involves not only accomplishing for others. It demands modeling positive traits and values throughout the process. 

2. It is possible there is an additional perspective. (This general approach is suggested by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, as well as some others, all be it each with slightly different formulations). Many of the Mefarshim are bothered by Moshe's harsh punishment. Was his sin really so terrible that he was not worthy of leading the Jewish people into Israel? Also, it is certainly interesting that there are so many views as to the nature of Moshe's sin. It is hard to overlook the ambiguity generated by the Pesukim and found in the Mefarshim as to what he actually did wrong. As such, maybe one could suggest that what happened in this Parsha was less a classic sin followed by a harsh punishment. Rather, this episode clarified that Moshe was no longer the right leader for the Jewish people who where about to enter Israel. This was a new generation, and maybe they needed a new leader. Working off of Rambam's approach mentioned above, maybe the way Moshe spoke to the Jews was not in line with what would work best for them. It is not C"V a deficiency in Moshe or a critique of him, but rather an understanding that not all leaders, even exceptional ones, are the best for each group and in all times.

Each perspective adds insight into the role of Jewish leadership. The first reminds us that great leaders don't just deliver to their followers, but model the kind of behavior the inspires them to reach greater heights. The second highlights an important idea about the relationship between leaders and their followers. Each must understand the other, and a leader must be the right fit for his time and place. 

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