“Moses: The Lonely Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, opens the fifth book of the Torah, the book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy. Much of the book of Deuteronomy consists of a repetition of the history of the People of Israel from the time of the Exodus, until the people reach the borders of the Promised Land (Devarim 5765-2005).

As we have previously noted (Devarim 5773-2013), parashat Devarim is traditionally read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, which is known as Shabbat Chazon, the “Sabbath of the Vision,” alluding to the opening word of the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah that is read as the Haftarah on Shabbat Chazon. The prophet Isaiah predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem if the Jewish people fail to repent.

There is a prominent allusion to Tisha b’Av in parashat Devarim. In his review of the post-Exodus history of the people, Moses recalls the selection of the seventy elders of Israel to help him govern the people. Because the people had grown so large and unwieldy, Moses cried out, Deuteronomy 1:12, אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם, How can I, alone, carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels? Moses then challenges the people to provide distinguished men, who are wise and understanding, to serve together with him as leaders of the people.

It is hardly an accident that Moses uses the Hebrew word, אֵיכָה, “Eicha,” how–how can I alone carry your contentiousness. “Eicha,” is also the first word of the Scroll of Lamentations (known as Megillat Eicha) and is found in the Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon, as well.

At first glance, it would appear from the above citation that Moses is complaining about the burdens of leadership.

The Vilna Gaon notes that the uncommon use of the word, “Eicha,” which parallels the first word of the Book of Lamentations, obviously underscores the connection to the destruction of the Temple.

But the Vilna Gaon notes further that the verse in which Moses expresses his self-doubts, also includes the word, לְבַדִּי, “L’vah’dee,” which means alone. “How can I alone,” asks Moses, “carry your contentiousness?” In the opening verse of the Book of Lamentations as well, not only does the word, “Eicha” appear, but so too does the concept of loneliness. The prophet Jeremiah laments: אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, How did the city of Jerusalem, this once-great metropolis, become a city that sits in solitude? Thus, the Vilna Gaon argues, the real connection between parashat Devarim and Tisha b’Av, is not how the great hardships occurred, but rather the loneliness of both Moses and the city of Jerusalem.

Moses certainly was not complaining about the burdens of leadership. He was a most gifted and accomplished leader, who could resolve almost every communal issue. The loneliness, however, was too much for him to bear.

Had the people at least appreciated what Moses had done for them, he would not have been so lonely. But instead, they constantly attacked him, criticized him, and found fault with him. The great Moses needed support, which is what he, at least partially, found when the seventy members of the Sanhedrin joined in his efforts to lead the people. Moses certainly could have managed without the people’s accolades, but the loneliness was too much for even the great Moses to bear.

And so it was similarly with the city of Jerusalem. At the time of the destruction of the first Temple, as reported by the prophet Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem was alone, the people in Jerusalem were alone. Although they all suffered together in the calamity of the destruction and the oppression of the Babylonians, there was no unity among the people. All were preoccupied with their own suffering, unable to see beyond their own needs. They needed a sympathetic shoulder, they needed someone to share their burdens, but no one else seemed to care, because they were all so wrapped up in their own troubles.

As usual, there are contemporary lessons to be learned from these ancient texts. In this time of great communal need, with the murderous attacks of the Hamas terrorists, and the hundreds of lethal missiles that have been fired upon the State of Israel, to the indifference, it seems, of the entire world, the People of Israel have one great asset, their unity and their common concern and care for each other.

Ironically, the unity that the People of Israel are currently experiencing emerged from the crisis of the three kidnapped and murdered teens. Nevertheless, the degree of selflessness and giving that the People of Israel exhibited during the search for the kidnapped victims, and in the battle that ensued with the Hamas terrorists, is perhaps unmatched in the annals of human history.

Is there a sensible response to the perpetual question of the Jewish people–“Eicha?” How could this have happened? The answer is, yes! The people of Israel can address every issue, as long as we are not alone. Of course, Israel is never alone because the Al-mighty is always with His people, but that is not enough. For the loneliness of our people to permanently vanish, it is incumbent upon each and every member of the Jewish community to feel the pain of every Jew who is suffering and threatened, indeed to feel the pain of all innocent human beings in this world, who are facing great horrors and unprecedented suffering because of the bestial actions of a growing number of very wicked people.

The answer to Jewish loneliness is, as Rashi noted on Exodus 19:2, “One people, one heart.” May this period of communal mourning be a time of enhanced mutual concern, which will usher in the dawn of peace and tranquility, for all people throughout the world.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) was observed this year on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorated the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av.  Tisha b’Av will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, August 4th and 5th.