It was one of the great moments of personal transformation, and it changed not only Moses but also our very conception of leadership itself.
By the end of Sefer Bamidbar, Moses’s career as a leader seemed to have come to its end. He had appointed his successor, Joshua, and it would be he, not Moses, who would lead the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses seemed to have achieved everything he was destined to achieve. For him there would be no more battles to fight, no more miracles to perform, no more prayers to make on behalf of the people.
It is what Moses did next that bears the mark of greatness. For the last month of his life he assembled the people and delivered the series of addresses we know as Sefer Devarim, literally “words.” In them he reviewed the people’s past and foresaw their future. He gave them laws, some he had given them before but in a different form, others that were new and that he had waited to announce until the people were about to enter the land. Linking all these details of law and history into a single overarching vision, he taught the people to see themselves as an am kadosh, a holy people, the only people whose sovereign and lawgiver was God himself.
If someone who knew nothing about Judaism and the Jewish people were to ask you for a single book that would explain them both – who Jews are and why they do what they do – the best answer would be Devarim. No other book so encapsulates and dramatizes all the key elements of Judaism as a faith and way of life.
In a much-watched TED lecture (and a book with the same name),Simon Sinek says that the transformative leaders are those who “Start with Why.” More poetically, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
In Devarim, Moses gave the people their Why. They are God’s people, the nation on whom He has set his love, the people He rescued from slavery and gave, in the form of the commandments, the constitution of liberty. They may be small but they are unique. They are the people who, in themselves, testify to something beyond themselves. They are the people whose fate will defy the normal laws of history. Other nations, says Moses, will recognize the miraculous nature of the Jewish story – and so, from Blaise Pascal to Nikolai Berdyaev and beyond, they did.
In the last month of his life Moses ceased to be the liberator, the miracle worker and redeemer, and became instead Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses, our teacher. He was the first instance in history of a leadership type in which Jews have excelled: the leader-as- teacher.
Moses surely knew that some of his greatest achievements would not last forever. The people he had rescued would one day suffer exile and persecution again. The next time, though, they would not have a Moses to do miracles. So he planted a vision in their minds, hope in their hearts, a discipline in their deeds, and a strength in their souls that would never fade. When leaders become educators they change lives.
In a powerful essay, “Who is fit to lead the Jewish people?” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik contrasted the Jewish attitude to kings and teachers as leadership types. The Torah places severe limits on the power of kings. They must not multiply gold, or wives, or horses. A king is commanded “not to consider himself better than his fellow Israelites nor turn from the law to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 17:20).