Divrei Torah

PARSHAS VAYEILECH 5779

In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Moshe tells the Jewish people, “I am 120 years old today, I can no longer go out and come in, and G-d has said to me, ‘you shall not cross the Jordan River.’” We might think that he was old and feeble, unable to continue because he had lost his strength in his advanced years. Rashi informs us otherwise. When Moshe dies, the Torah says that he was in perfect health and strength. So, Rashi explains that “I can no longer go out and come in” means “I am not permitted to go out and come in. G-d has given my authority to Joshua.”

Rashi also provides a second explanation, that “the knowledge handed down and the wellsprings of wisdom were closed to him.” That interpretation by Rashi seems difficult off the top. It seems to indicate that Moshe was unable to learn any more or perhaps his mind was not what it once was. But, how could that be? Rashi just got through telling us that the Torah itself testifies that Moshe was in perfect health!

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter - the 3rd Gerrer Rebbe - explains that Moshe was indeed in pristine physical condition, but he had reached such an exalted spiritual level – higher than any other human being was able to attain – he comprehended matters that were closed to the average person. So, Moshe told the people that he could no longer lead them because they were on different planes. He could no longer access the gates of wisdom to relate to people who were far less sophisticated and holy than he was. It was therefore the proper time for Yehoshua to take over the leadership of the Jewish people, because a shepherd can only lead if he can communicate with his flock.

This is certainly an eternal lesson with broad implications for our lives. In order to be affective, the heads must be in line with the people. That is what is so awesome about democracy. Theoretically, at least, those running the government need to be responsive to the needs of the people or their time in office will be quite short.

In Jewish life, we find examples of the necessity of leadership to be in touch with the people.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Meir was the greatest of the Rabbis during the period of the Mishna. Yet, whenever another rabbi disputes Rabbi Meir’s halachik rulings, the halacha usually follows the other rabbi and not Rabbi Meir. The Talmud explains that Rabbi Meir was too much above everybody else. His explanation and understanding of the halacha was beyond the understanding of most people and we must be able to understand Halacha.

In the 18th century, there were many great Torah scholars. Many of them are not well-known because that was also the period of the Vilna Gaon. Yet, the halacha usually does not follow the opinion of the Vilna Gaon. The main halachik authority during the 18th century was Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague – better known as the “Noda B’Yehuda”. Why was this? The Gaon was beyond the understanding of everybody else. He was head and shoulders above them all.

Over and over again throughout the travails through the desert, the Torah places an emphasis on the relationship between Moshe and the people. That relationship matters – whether it is between a principal and the faculty, a president and his employees or a rabbi with his congregants. A leader can be quite talented, but without a firm understanding of the people he is working for, he could be a jack-of-all-trades who is all the while a master of nothing.