Friday, February 10, 2012

A Truly Humble Leader

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Avi Billet

As an introduction to the events that will unfold on the mountain, God tells Moshe to tell the people that they will soon become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to God. (19:5-6)

The Torah then tells us that "Moshe came [back] and summoned the elders of the people, conveying to them all that God had said. All the people answered as one and said, ''All that God has spoken, we will do." Moshe brought the people's reply back to God. God said to Moshe, 'I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that all the people will hear when I speak to you. They will then believe in you forever.' Moshe told God the people's response." (19:7-9)

Rashi addresses the fact that Moshe conveyed the people's response the first time, saying it is a sign of respect to God to deliver the message, even though the Almighty and All-knowing knows what they said.

But the precedent is set that the people are told the message from God, they respond to Moshe, and then we are told that Moshe brought their reply to God. So how is that when God describes the thick cloud, Moshe does not convey the message to the people, they do not seem to respond, and yet Moshe tells God of their response? To what did they respond? What did they say? Why does Moshe seem to avoid sharing the second message of God with the people? And how did he then know what their response was if he didn't speak to them a second time?

Rashi explains that Moshe already knew the will of the people, namely "that they want to hear from You directly. After all, there is no comparison between hearing the king's message from his messenger versus hearing it directly from the king. 'We want to see our King.'"

Through trying to understand Rashi's exposition, the Kli Yakar has a novel approach to reading the text. Rashi does not address what the second response of the people is – only that Moshe was able to convey what they wanted. But the Kli Yakar posits that Moshe was in fact quoting the people, based on his understanding their will from their initial response, when he said the words "El Hashem – to God" in 19:9.

If the words "El Hashem" are not a quote, they are superfluous! The Torah should have said, "Moshe told their response אליו - to Him!" – obviously referring to God, with Whom Moshe is conversing. What was previously translated as "Moshe told God the people's response" should therefore be read, "Moshe [responded to God and] told Him the words of the people: 'To God.'"

This was a response to what God told him, "So that the people will hear when I speak to you and will also believe in you forever." Moshe knew from what the people had told him before that they were only interested in hearing from God. They had said, "We will listen to God" but said nothing about listening to Moshe!

The Kli Yakar is intellectually honest and boldly states that as nice as this interpretation is, the text does not really imply this. How then can we justify making the claim that Moshe felt he was not believed?

Because when God initially gave the message to Moshe, He told him to tell the people directly. But Moshe first went to the Elders instead, prompting the people to say 'We will do [only] all that God said' even though the Elders had not yet addressed them. Witnessing Moshe address the Elders indicated to them that everything would be through middlemen. They, on the other hand, did not want to have the middlemen - they wanted to hear directly from The Source.

This is the difference between "Vayashav" (and he brought their response) and "Vayaged" (and he told God). The first time Moshe returned to God he said "We will do all of God's instructions." He did not say, "Only if it comes from God directly" because he assumed God would convey His message according to the desire of the people.

But when God said, "I will be coming to you in a cloud, and they'll believe in you (Moshe)," Moshe realized God was planning to speak through middlemen. His response at that point reflected the notion that "The people don't want to hear from me. They are looking "el Hashem [to God]" because they only want to hear from You."

Only at that point were the people told, "If that's what they want, they need to prepare to greet the king… wash up, separate from spouses etc." (19:10)

Both the Alshikh and the Seforno begin their explanations of these verses with the notion that Moshe recognized that the people had not believed in his prophesy, and that God was looking to manufacture this experience so the people would believe him [Moshe, that is], and believe in his role as prophet forever.

In this light, I believe Moshe is demonstrating two tremendous leadership skills. On the one hand, he understands the subtleties of the desires of the people. The spoken and even the underspoken, or unspoken words are not lost on him.

On the other hand, he understands his role as leader, but not as ruler. It's never about Moshe. God tells Moshe, "Through this the people will believe in you," but this is the last thing Moshe wants to hear. He certainly does not want to convey to the people a message that says, "What you are about to see will prove that I am the leader chosen by God." He is happy being a shepherd who takes care of the people, and who presents their needs and desires to the Almighty, even if it comes as part of a rejection of who he is and the role he is meant to play.

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