Louis XVI hoped that July 21, 1791 would be a turning point in the French Revolution. It was, but not quite the way he had hoped it would be. Louis had planned to cross into Austria, raise an army and invade his home country of France to crush the revolution. In fact, Louis and his family nearly made it to the border. They were a mere thirty miles away from putting his grand scheme into action. But a stable master recognized him when the carriage stopped to rest. The National Guardsmen were alerted and intercepted his carriage forcing him and his family to return to Paris embarrassed and humiliated. The French Revolution was about to take a dangerous and radical turn.
Since June of 1789, when the French Revolution began, the king had outwardly embraced it to various degrees. He would appear at times before France’s new legislature, the National Assembly, and he even took an oath of loyalty to the future constitution. In essence he expressed his commitment to France’s transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. This is crucial to remember. For its first two years the French Revolution was more of a reformation and adjustment of the established social and political orders than an attempt to replace them. People still wanted and respected their king.
But Louis was actually biding his time. He plotted with his advisors on ways to slow the Revolution and regaining his full power. Fearing that the situation in France was only going to worsen, Louis decided to sneak out of Paris and bring in a foreign army. But he was caught. Following his return to Paris the National Assembly met to discuss their next move. Initially all parties wanted to spin the attempted escape as a kidnapping. But the king had left behind a letter criticizing the revolution and bemoaning his own loss of power.
The citizens of Paris were very discouraged. The king who was supposed to fight for France had betrayed her. Even his supporters began to abandon him. A king who puts his own interests ahead of his people, is not a king. People began to think that France did not need a king and would be better as a republic. Likewise, radical forces began to gain popularity; ultimately they hijacked the Revolution and ushered in what became known as the Reign of Terror. During this period Louis himself was tried for treason and executed in January 1792.
This week’s parsha presents Moshe as a leader in stark relief to Louis. From Moshe’s earliest ventures among the people, he demonstrated his complete dedication to them; it was never about him. In this week’s Torah reading, as he prepares to complete his tenure as leader, Moshe continues to exemplify this ideal.
Moshe (31:2) is commanded to retaliate against the Midyanim for their crimes against Bnei Yisrael. The pasuk concludes with Moshe being informed that following this war, his term will be complete and he will pass away.
Rashi points out that this pasuk speaks volumes of Moshe’s selfless nature. The obvious implication of the pasuk is that Moshe’s life was tied into the execution of this mitzvah. As soon as he completed this mission Hashem intended to take back his soul. Most people would find every justification to delay initiating hostilities under such circumstances. But Moshe employed the same alacrity he always did. Hashem commanded him something to do and he did it. Leadership is about what’s right for the nation—not what’s convenient for the leader.
In addition, the Meshech Chochma comments that Moshe launched the attack before his death so as to preclude people accusing him of delaying the war due to his familial connections to Midyan. By attacking Midyan on his watch, Moshe taught us that a leader must do what is right for his nation. Nepotism and favoritism have no role for a good leader.
Leaders must always remember this lesson. It’s about the people and organization—end of story. Had Louis XVI understood this, he would not have attempted to flee France. We can only imagine the trajectory French and world history might have taken had the French Revolution not become radicalized. But then again, had Louis understood that he served the people, and not the other way around—there would not have been a need for the French Revolution in the first place.