Parashat Nitsavim-Vayelekh – Following Man vs Following God

הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ

The joint parashot of Nitsavim-Vayelekh begin Moshe’s final farewell to the nation, including a formal covenant, the commandment of Teshuvah, his transferal of leadership to Yehoshua, the commandment of the mitsvah of Hak’hel, and the writing of a Torah scroll to be kept by the Aron. While not the most dramatic or stirring of these events, the appointment of Yehoshua presents us with problematic doublings and contradictions which, when given serious consideration, not only explain or cast new light on various passages in Sefer Devarim and beyond, they also point toward the Torah’s radical conception of leadership and responsibility.

The passage at the beginning of Devarim 31 depicts Moshe telling the people that he will not be leading them any longer, and that Yehoshua will be leading them in his stead. However, that’s not quite what it says.

1 And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. 2 And he said to them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in; and the Lord has said to me: You shall not cross over this Jordan. 3 The Lord your God, He will cross over before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them; and Joshua, he shall cross over before you, as the Lord has spoken.

The first thing that stands out here is that Moshe present’s two reasons for why he will not be leading Bnei Yisrael anymore, (1) that he is too old and therefore physically he is no longer up to the challenge of leadership, and (2) that ‘א has said to him that he shall not cross the Jordan. Either one of these reasons would be sufficient, and certainly once the second has been stated, as it was in Bamidbar 20:12, the first is not only unnecessary but also not quite correct, as ‘א could certainly have strengthened Moshe if he was to continue leading. Moving on from there, we see that in verse three, parallel to these two reasons, there are in fact two leaders. Moshe tells the people that in contrast to himself, their former leader, that the new leader will “cross over before you,” “הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.” However, he uses this phrase not once but twice, by both ‘א and Yehoshua. Moshe seems to say that his role will be filled by both ‘א and Yehoshua. This is, to say the least, odd, and it requires explanation. This explanation can be found in the appointment of Yehoshua in Bamidbar 27.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Sefer Bamidbar starts with the story of the Daughters of Tselophehad, which is really attached to the census that preceded it, and then begins something new, the question of who will lead after Moshe.

12 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Ascend Har HaAvarim, and behold the land which I have given to the children of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered; 14 because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Merivat-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. 15 And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’ 18 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; 19 and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. 20 And you shall put of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. 21 And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.’

This section (Bamidbar 27:12-21) is composed of two distinct passages (27:12-14 and 27:15-21). It is important to note that these are in fact two separate passages[1] (there’s even a break between them), because this pair of passages correspond exactly to the dual pairs of reasons and leaders in Devarim 31. In the first passage, ‘א tells Moshe that he will not be going into the Land of Israel, and, importantly, no replacement leader is mentioned. In the second passage, Moshe asks ‘א to choose a person to replace him after he dies, in order that the nation not be “as sheep which have no shepherd.” This second passage also uses the same language of “going out” and “coming in” (27:17, 21) that Moshe uses in Devarim 21:2, where he says that the reason that he needs a replacement is his physical inability to lead. This dichotomy matches the two reasons and leaders given in Devarim 21, one where ‘א tells Moshe that his leadership is over, and therefore ‘א will lead, and one where Moshe feels he is too old to lead and asks for a replacement, Yehoshua.

This is tied into the hotly debated understanding of the mitsvah[2] regarding appointing a king from Devarim 17.

14 When you have come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell in it; and you shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; 15 you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you ; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Verse 15 certainly does seem to say that the nation is commanded to appoint a king over them, but it is preceded by verse 14, which seems to indicate that the commandment would only apply in the case where Bnei Yisrael indicate that they want a king, like the nations around them, meaning that it is optional. This debate is expressed in the Sifri[3], the halakhic midrash on Sefer Devarim.

“And you shall say, Let us appoint over ourselves a king’ – R’ Nehorai says: This is a matter of disgrace to Israel, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:7) ‘For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them.’ R’ Yehuda said: But it is a mitzva from the Torah for them to request a king for themselves, as it is written, ‘You shall surely appoint over yourselves a king.’ So why were they punished for this in the days of Shemuel? Because it was too early for them to ask. ‘Like all the nations around us’ – R’ Nehorai said, They did not ask for a king for any other reason but so that he would institute idolatry, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:20), ‘And we, too, shall be like all the nations, and our king will judge, and he will go out before us and fight our wars.” (Sifri Shoftim 156)

This debate is picked up in the Rishonim both in their enumerations of the mitsvot and in their commentaries on the Torah. Stepping back to the Tannaim, it is important to note the proof text R’ Nehorai brings indicating that having a king is less than ideal. “For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them” (Shemuel I 8:7). This verse from Shemuel I depicts ‘א stating that desiring a king is not simply choosing from amongst types of human authorities, but choosing a human leader over Divine Authority[4], which is a fairly strong argument for the opinion that having a king is optional at best.

Taking that back to the anointment of Yehoshua, Moshe’s request for a replacement is granted by ‘א, not initiated by Him, which would indicate that in an ideal sense there was never supposed to be any replacement for Moshe, and the people were supposed to be directly under ‘א’s leadership, with no human leadership in between, as is the case in Sefer Shoftim, after Yehoshua’s death, where there is no centralized national leadership. Unfortunately, the people failed to live up to the responsibility of guiding themselves and their society according to the Torah, and so eventually the institution of a King became necessary. Ideally, there was never supposed to be a king, but once there was a need for a king, there was an ideal way for the king to act. The king was never supposed to displace ‘א’s leadership, but his leadership was supposed to encourage the people to follow the Torah. Hence Divrei HaYamim I 29:23, “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king,” where it’s made clear that the seat of human authority is also meant to be a representation of Divine authority. However, Bnei Yisrael failed in that too, as is clear from most of Sefer Melakhim. This idealization of human leadership as an expression of divine leadership is depicted in  Devarim 31:23, “And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said: ‘Be strong and courageous; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you.” Yehoshua’s strong leadership will be a function of ‘א being with him.

Reading this back into Sefer Devarim sheds new light on many passages. Devarim 17:15-20 depicts the specific laws of the King which put a strong emphasis on the fact that the king must be of the brethren of Israel, and greatly restrict the amount of wealth, horses, and wives that the King may acquire. On the surface these laws would seem designed to keep the king from becoming too arrogant and becoming corrupted by his wealth and power but, based on the above, this would seem to be part of the larger goal of emphasizing that the king is just another member of Bnei Yisrael under the Kingship of ‘א.

Another passage that takes on fascinating new meaning in this light is part of Moshe’s final pep-talk to the people in Devarim 30.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

The basic message of this passage is that the people are capable of keeping the Torah, that they need not worry, and cannot claim, that it is too hard for them to keep. However, the specific messages are that the Torah is not in heaven, where the people would need someone to go get it for them, nor is it across the sea, which would bar the people from going to get it. These two impassable obstacles, the breadth of the sea and the height of heaven, were those that were crossed by Moshe as he split the sea and ascended Har Sinai. Thus the message of this passage is not just that the people have the capability to keep the Torah, but more specifically that they do not need Moshe, or his replacement, in order to do so. They themselves are up to the challenge.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing to appreciate in light of this idea is the mitsvah of Hak’hel (31:10-13). Every seven years, when the people are all in Jerusalem for Sukkot, they are to gather around the king as he reads to them from the Book of the Torah[5], in order that they learn to revere ‘א and follow His Torah. This ceremony is essentially a reenactment of the Revelation on Har Sinai, and there are numerous textual and thematic parallels indicating this[6]. However, it is also parallel to the covenant ceremony described in parashat Ki Tavo that was yet to be enacted on Har Eval, which itself has strong textual and thematic parallels to the Revelation on Har Sinai[7]. The two covenants, that of Har Sinai and Har Eval, are each thought of as the people accepting ‘א’s Torah upon themselves, and they are that. In this vein, Hak’hel reenacts the giving of the law, with the King standing in place of Moshe and Yehoshua[8]. However, the two events were each also the forging of a covenant, and this covenant is a direct relationship[9] between ‘א and the Nation of Israel. Taken in this light, the mitsvah of Hak’hel is not about gather every 7 years for the people to brush up on their knowledge of the laws, but in order for them to reaffirm that they are ruled not by the king but by ‘א. This also helps explain why every member of Israel is supposed to be there, even children who cannot understand the law but can certainly grasp that ‘א is in charge.

Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Judaism has gone from a centralized, nation-oriented religion to a much more personalized, individual-centered religion[11]. We have returned to the status quo of Sefer Shoftim, and we must not fail as Bnei Yisrael did then.The mitsvah of Hak’hel arises every year as we approach Rosh HaShanah. More than it is a day of judgement, Rosh HaShanah is about the declaration and affirmation of ‘א’s Kingship[11]. Rosh Hashanah is a time where we take upon ourselves the responsibility of a direct relationship with’א, with all the culpability that entails. Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Shoftim were incapable of taking ‘א’s Kingship upon themselves, and so they required a human king. We cannot be vicariously religious. Communities require leaders , but they are meant to help guide us, not to be intermediaries between us and ‘א. There are no “holy men” in Judaism, only individuals, and thus no individual can throw off his responsibility to ‘א by saying that they are not a “holy man.” The Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to turn to their leaders for guidance only when they cannot determine what they should do (Devarim 17:8), otherwise we must turn to ‘א. On Rosh HaShanah, as in the mitsvah of Hak’hel, we reaffirm the covenant we have with ‘א, and recognize the responsibility that is thus incumbent upon us, and only upon us[12]. Only in this manner do we return to ‘א and to who we are meant to be.

[1] For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two passages and, more particularly, the grammatical and chronological issues involved in understanding the first passage, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] For more on this discussion, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] A similar formulation is also found in a beraita, Sanhedrin 20b, and Tosefta Sanhedrin ch. 4.

[4] The alternative was that the people in asking for a king were simply rejecting Shemuel the Prophet as their leader, but ‘א’s statement makes it clear that ‘א’s Prophet is not a leader in and of himself, but rather a mouthpiece, a vehicle for the expression of Divine Authority.

[5] There are a variety of opinions as to what was actually contained in this torah, as reading the entirety of the Torah would be quite difficult in practice. See the commentaries on this passage for more details on the various opinions.

[6] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Menachem Leibtag.

[7] For more on that, see this essay by R’ Tamir Granot.

[8] See Hizkuni on Devarim 31:11.

[9] Peshat in Shemot 20 is certainly that ‘א spoke all ten of the commandments directly to the people, but it is possible to suggest otherwise, and the forging of the covenant from the beginning of Shemot 19 through Shemot 24 does seem to be done via Moshe. However, the covenant is repeatedly affirmed and accepted not by Moshe, but by the people (19:8 and 24:7, for example).

[10] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, 8a.

[11] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Rosh HaShanah, 16a.

[12] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, 17a.

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