Moses never had an easy time as the leader. In the very first chapter of D’varim he tells the people that there are so many of them that he can’t handle the burden. How does he describe their vast numbers? “Like the stars of the heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10).
The simile is an obvious exaggeration, since the Book of B’midbar has given us precise statistics and we know the “stars of heaven” phrase is not to be taken literally. But the Midrash does not leave it as a mere question of numbers. It sees the phrase as a prophecy of the future. In time to come the Israelite people will light up the skies as spiritual and intellectual stars.
All these centuries later we see the evidence of the dream come true. Even the antisemites who constantly criticize who we are and what we do, and find so little to praise about us, have to admit that the Jews have made a contribution to civilisation that is far out of proportion to their numbers.
NOT JUST A REPETITION.
There is a view that the Book of D’varim is merely a recapitulation of the material in the previous four Books, and therefore Moses is summing up all that he did and said in the years of his leadership.
This opinion cannot be correct, because D’varim actually contains a fair amount of new material. Most of it deals with personal status, especially marriage and divorce. According to tradition, this material was already known to Moses from his sojourn on Sinai when God gave him the teaching that was not all slated for promulgation until a later stage.
We wonder why there was a delay in providing the people with their marital code; the explanation might be the human passions which drove relationships with the opposite sex. At that point little notice would have been taken of preachments that tried to restrain people’s emotions and drives, and it needed time to acknowledge that rushing into unsuitable unions needed to be restrained and there needed to be laws and procedures to govern the beginning of marriages.
Likewise, the possibly hurtful abandonment of unsuitable partners needed to be modified and a code of divorce law and procedure accepted.
THE JOB SPECIFICATION.
D’varim is different from the other books of the Torah. It has history, poetry, theology and law, as they all do. But, opening with an announcement, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel…” it is almost like one long, sustained piece of rhetoric, one oration, Moses’ farewell speech to the people.
In many ways the speech has one theme – leadership. Moses the leader speaks about leadership. He explains that neither he nor any other leader could carry the whole burden alone. The only way was and is to have a team. But not everyone has the capacity for leadership.
Three things above all are needed in order to be a leader, to be wise, understanding and well known (many translations render the third qualification “full of knowledge”, but “well known” is better). The job specification is given in Deut. 1:13. Two verses later we discover that Moses looked for but failed to find men with all three qualifications. This is why he reports that he found “wise men, well known”. Nothing is said about men of understanding.
What is the difference between wisdom and understanding? The Zohar says,
“A student who suggests new ideas to his master is a man of wisdom; a man of understanding knows both his own view and that of others” (Exod. 201a).
To be wise is no picnic; you have to have a questing, creative mind and be possessed of ideas for changed situations. To be understanding you have to know not just ideas but people. The leader who lacks the instinct to know his people will always be deficient as a leader.
No wonder that Moses found it so hard to fill the leadership positions with men who had all the desired qualifications and had to settle for something less.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.