Parshat Vayelech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
This week’s parshat, Vayelech, describes the end of an era, the termination of Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership. Transferring power from one leader to the next is always fraught with possible dangers, especially during a crucial point in the life of the nation.
The Jews’ challenge at this time was to fight the wars to conquer Eretz Yisrael and settle it. This assignment had been too daunting for the previous generation, which had succumbed to the panic induced by the spies. This sin was so serious that G-d threatened to destroy the Jewish people and refrained only because of Moshe’s intervention.
Forty years after the Exodus, the nation was poised to initiate the invasion. It would seem that Moshe’s leadership was needed more than ever, and that Hashem would allow him to stay in his position a bit longer to see to properly execute this monumental task.
However, we cannot comprehend Hashem’s considerations. He decreed that Moshe would not “cross over this Jordan,” but would ascend a hill to view the land from there. Later, he would climb Mount Nevo, where he would die and be interred in an unknown location.
The one who had led the Jews out of Egypt, brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai, and guided them through the travails in the wilderness would not be with them for the final stage of their divine mission to establish a holy people in G-d’s Chosen Land.
What lessons can we learn from this? Much of Vayelech deals with how the leadership was transferred to Yehoshua. Hashem and Moshe addressed and encouraged him to be strong in carrying out his responsibilities.
Yehoshua’s situation was difficult. As a dedicated student of Moshe since youth, he had extreme reverence for his great master and teacher concerning whom the Torah attests, “there would never arise another Prophet like Moshe.” Yet, he was now summoned to assume the position of this seemingly irreplaceable ruler.
This narrative depicts Moshe’s true greatness. A leader’s integrity is measured by his dedication to the people’s welfare. When things are going well, the ruler will be popular. But what happens when society’s needs conflict with the leader’s personal desires?
This was precisely Moshe’s situation. He was forced to relinquish his position on the verge of achieving the ultimate success. And he alone could successfully transfer his power and provide the necessary legitimacy and self-confidence to someone who had been his student.
Moshe’s final challenge was to convince Yehoshua that his ascension was not a usurpation but, indeed, was a source of joy to him. He assured Yehoshua that, by scrupulously adhering to the commandments, he would be successful. Moshe urged him to “be strong and courageous.” At first glance, these words seem repetitive, but they are not.
A leader must be strong in two ways. First, he must be fully in control of his own emotions and absolutely dedicated to fulfilling both the letter and philosophy of the Torah. He must also be powerful in dealing with the pressure of people who push him to act in ways that are contrary to Torah or to their own well-being.
The fear of losing popularity is the most compelling factor that causes leaders to assume faulty positions. On many occasions, Moshe had faced great opposition from the people. Yet he did not allow that to affect his decisions and actions. His ultimate objective was to fulfill Hashem’s will. Only a leader who has that orientation can do what is truly best for his subjects.
May Hashem bless us today with the caliber of leaders such as those we read about in our Torah. JN
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix.