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What It Takes to Be a Jewish Leader

Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

by Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

April 15, 2009 | 1:16 am

Charlton Heston (alav haShalom) made a great Moses; on screen, he seemed perfect — tall, handsome, gravelly voice, and not even Anne Baxter could seduce him.

Thankfully, the biblical Moses was not as monochromatic as the theatrical Moses. Despite his near perfection as a human being, he was still complex and flawed. Instead of shying away from this fact, both the biblical text and the midrash revel in it.

We are told that only after seven days of Tabernacle consecration did Aaron, Moses’ brother, begin his job as the High Priest, taking over the work on the eighth day (“Shemini” means eighth, hence the name of the Torah portion). Who was working the Tabernacle for the first seven days? Moses himself.

The midrash explains that when God first appeared to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be the redeemer of Israel, Moses demurred for seven days. On the seventh day of their disputation, Moses put his foot down with an exasperated “Please send someone else!”(Exodus 4:13). While knowing full well that Moses would finally relent to His arguments, God was still disappointed in his initial obstinacy.

The rabbis debate how God punished Moses for his refusal: One rabbi says that it came at the end of 40 years, when, after Moses entreated God for seven days to be allowed entry into Israel (as recorded in Deuteronomy), God finally refused. The other rabbi suggests that the punishment came about here, when Moses was initially allowed to act as the High Priest, but only for seven days. On the eighth day, he was stripped of the priesthood and it was awarded instead to his brother and nephews.

What is the connection between Moses’ refusal to act as redeemer and these two events? To explain, we need to first understand why Moses was so adamantly against being a savior. It’s not that Moses didn’t view himself as a leader — he very much saw himself as someone capable of shepherding his people. But he viewed himself first and foremost as a spiritual leader, a lawgiver and teacher who would eventually present the Tablets to his people at Mount Sinai.

His mistake, however, was failing to see how the same person who was to be the people’s spiritual leader could also act as their physical liberator. He was unable to integrate the two and see how the two roles could be fulfilled by the same individual. While fully prepared to be the giver of the Torah, he felt that a person destined for such a spiritual calling was not qualified to also be the person who would engage in political wrangling with world leaders. He just couldn’t see himself standing in Pharaoh’s court, demanding the Jews’ release.

Moses’ petition to God to send someone else was not a refusal to be the spiritual leader of Israel, but rather a request to have God assign a second leader to act as their political and military commander-in-chief.

The connection to his punishment is now understandable. Both service in the Tabernacle and life in the Holy Land demand that one appreciate the duality of all that exists in this world. To be a good Kohen (priest), one must realize that the offering of an animal’s carcass on the altar is a form of spiritual worship, accomplished by a purely physical act. To be a proper dweller of Eretz Israel, one must appreciate that within every single fig and grape of the Holy Land is contained something transcendent and holy, which is manifested by the unique agricultural mitzvot of Israel. Without the ability to synthesize the spiritual and physical together, one can neither inherit the priesthood or Eretz Israel.

By the time the Tabernacle had been dedicated, and certainly by the time the Jewish people came to Israel’s borders, Moses had internalized this concept. But because he had failed this calling during his early stages of development, God denied him the opportunity to be that symbol of spiritual-physical fusion.

The Talmudic sages (T.B. Sotah 14a) ask why Moses so desperately wanted to enter the land of Israel. “Did he need to eat its fruits?” No, he simply wanted to fulfill those agricultural mitzvot that could only be fulfilled inside of Israel. And God’s refusal to Moses was the lesson: If you cannot amalgamate the spiritual and physical, you cannot properly live in Eretz Israel.

Sometimes in life we are called upon to perform a task or role that we do not envision is right for us. Sometimes the rabbi is called upon to be a general, and sometimes the general is called upon to be a rabbi. We should be ready to come to God’s call no matter what the task, and appreciate that the greatest service comes as a fusion of spirituality and physicality. May we hear the call when it comes!


Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

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