Moshe’s discussion with Hashem about leadership shows us what kind of people Hashem wants us to be.
“When your time’s up, it’s up,” they say. Or is it?
After Moshe has counted the people one final time in order to facilitate the distribution of Eretz Yisrael amongst them, Hashem tells him that he must now ascend Har Nevo and see the land before he is gathered unto his people (27:12). This would seem to be it. But interestingly that is not what happens; at least, not yet. Moshe requests that Hashem appoint a new leader, Hashem accedes to his request and then the Torah moves on to other matters, among them the laws of the Korban Mussaf. Hashem repeats His command to ascend the mountain, in similar language, at the end of Parashat Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:48-52), and there Moshe does fulfill the command.
So what’s going on here?
Most of the Mefarshim find this passage so difficult that they cannot take it at face value. It can’t be that Hashem commanded Moshe to get ready to die now when he still has so much to do. Some instead suggest that Hashem is not commanding Moshe, but merely indicating to him that he is not going to be the one to take Bnei Yisrael in (Rashi, Ramban). Others suggest that the Torah is just paraphrasing the command that was made in Ha’azinu, bringing it out of its chronological sequence (Da’at Mikra). (Each of these approaches has its issues.)
Or is it not possible that we should take the pesukim literally? Isn’t it possible that Hashem tells Moshe he is now supposed to die, and it is only because of his request for a new leader that Hashem changes the plan and gives Moshe some extra time to implement it?
The challenge with this approach would be to explain how the plan had changed and how this affected what Moshe had to do.
What would have happened?
To deal with this issue, let us consider another perplexing question that arises here: What would have happened if Moshe hadn’t asked for a new leader? It would appear that Hashem had originally intended that there be no new leader. Is such a thing possible?
It would seem that indeed Hashem and Moshe possessed two different paradigms about how Bnei Yisrael should operate. Moshe believed that the people needed a leader, while Hashem’s approach was that they should lead themselves.
The Midrash indicates that although Hashem acceded to Moshe’s request, He did so with ambivalence. In the passage following, Hashem tells Moshe to command Bnei Yisrael regarding the Korban Mussaf for each festival. In explaining why this was done now, the Sifri (referred to by Rashi) explains that Hashem was telling Moshe, “Before you command Me about my children, command them regarding [their duties to] Me, so that they should not treat Me lightly…”
While Moshe thinks that the people must be led, Hashem wants the people to be encouraged to take ownership of their relationship with Him. The Korban Mussaf is a responsibility of the entire nation. The laws at the beginning of Parashat Matot are addressed to the heads of the tribes. Hashem wants the people to assume leadership in Moshe’s absence.
So how did Moshe have the chutzpa to argue with Hashem?
Moshe understood, as did all the Chachamim subsequently, that although Hashem gave us the Torah which shapes our lives, He also wants us to take ownership of how we live our lives in accordance with Torah. Why did Chazal create Takkanot and Gezerot that the Torah did not? If Hashem didn’t require them, who are they to come and introduce them?
The answer is that Hashem wants us to partner with Him in Torah. Hashem gave us the heavenly mission, but we have to take charge and use our own initiative and resourcefulness to work out how to fulfill it on earth. That’s why Moshe added an extra day of preparation before Matan Torah to the time Hashem had commanded – because although from a heavenly perspective it wasn’t deemed necessary, from an earthly perspective it was.
Moshe knew that, as the spokesman for the earthly side of the partnership, it was up to him to suggest the idea of a new leader and Hashem accepted his earthly feedback. But Hashem also moderated it, telling Moshe that if he really wants to prepare the people for the transition that was to happen, his primary focus has to be on priming the people to take responsibility. Moshe takes the point, and Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s attempt to guide the people to be able to succeed in his absence.
A Message For Us
Much of the mindset that proliferates in today’s world is suffused with people’s sense of entitlement. Let’s take a small example – how many address the issue of Jewish continuity. Many millions of dollars are spent sending every Jewish young person to Israel in the hope that they will want to remain Jewish. Rather than being charged with the responsibility of ensuring the Jewish future, they are sent the message that it is their birthright to have a free trip to Israel and that nothing much is really expected from them. Can there be a Jewish future without responsibility?
Even the frum community cannot take it for granted that all it has to do in today’s world is to keep the Torah and everything will be alright. The Torah gives us the heavenly dictates, and the Mesorah gives us the framework that has sustained us until now, but every generation must reflect on how to make Torah succeed in its generation. This is the lesson Hashem gives to Moshe.