Vayelech- Trusting Our Leadership

Our sedra opens with Moshe once again broaching the sensitive subject of his impending death. He “kvetches” to the entire nation about how difficult it is to lead at his age (“I am 120 years old and I can no longer come and go”), in order to prepare them for the inevitable. Then, he gives a more direct message to Yehoshua:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לְעֵינֵי כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת־הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְקֹוָק לַאֲבֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם וְאַתָּה תַּנְחִילֶנָּה אוֹתָם
And Moshe called out to Yehoshua and he said to him before all of Israel: Be strong, for you will bring this nation into the land that Hashem promised your forefathers to give to them, and you will inherit her for them. (דברים לא:ז)

This opening point, surely not news to any of the Jews on the Plains of Edom, is even more repetitive in that Moshe said the same exact thing three pesukim earlier (“יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא־יַשְׁמִיד אֶת־הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק”). Since our greatest leader was surely not going senile in his final days, why would he repeat this same message again?

Chizkuni answers that the key lies in the emphasis in our passuk of “לעיני כל ישראל.” He writes:

לעיני כל ישראל– שלא יאמרו למחר בעוד שמשה קיים לא נתן לך רשות
“Before the eyes of all of Israel”- so that they wouldn’t say the next day while Moshe was still alive, that he hadn’t given permission (to enter Israel). (חזקוני על דברים לא:ז)

Moshe was concerned that after his passing, the Jewish People would change their mind about continuing to Eretz Yisrael, so close to reaching their destination. This wasn’t such a unrealistic concern- after all, even in his lifetime, Moshe experienced people trying to derail the Jews’ journey, defying G-d’s direct purpose of taking them out of Egypt. After Moshe passes away, it would be realistic to expect some difficulty in convincing the nation to follow another leader into Israel,, even such a well-known personage as Yehoshua. In order to add support for his successor and to try to convince his people to continue on their journey, Moshe made sure to very publicly appoint Yehoshua to his new role and charge him with bringing the Jews home to Eretz Yisrael. He did this in the hope that there would be no doubt what his and G-d’s will were.

Throughout history, this challenge that Moshe feared has been actualized many times. Jewish leaders, many times secular or those not appointed by religious figures, have risen in the diaspora and tried to organize ways for our people to return home from their exile. Many of our brethren follow these figures, but unfortunately, just as many do not. Their opposition, oftentimes starting from personal or societal dislikes, eventually escalates into character assassinations and outright denial of our obligation to live in the Land of Israel, in the hope of stopping this new movement. In some extreme circumstances, these haters even kill the uprising leader, in a desperate attempt to metaphorically cut off the head of the monster.

On Wednesday, we commemorated one such time. After the destruction of the First Bet Hamikdash, many important inhabitants of Judah were either killed or exiled by the Babylonians, but a minority of her denizens were allowed to remain there under the rule of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the Jewish governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. Several Jews were oposed to this secular leadership, even though it was the only way that our people could have stayed in Israel and avoided exile.  One of them, Yishmael ben Netaniah, allowed himself to be manipulated by the king of Ammon into assassinating Gedaliah. Yishmael’s actions, while successful in removing the perceived improper secular leadership in Israel, singlehandedly brought about the totality of the Babylonian exile, and prevented what could have been a controlled return of our people to Israel and reconstruction of the Bet Hamikdash.

What emerges is a pattern that the worst suffering and exiles of our people happen once a leader takes the initiative in organizing return to Israel, and others oppose him so strongly that they resort to such drastic measures. Whether in the time of Gedaliah, or Ezra and Nechemia, or Europe in the early twentieth century, or in our times, Moshe’s subtle message of “לעיני כל ישראל,” as explained by Chizkuni, still rings true- we have a responsibility to support Jewish leadership and autonomy in Israel, even if said leaders are not religious and do not appear to have been appointed directly by G-d.

As we begin the year 5776, in a world bent on boycotting and condemning Israel, the first symbol of Jewish self-rule in two thousand years, this message of support is even more crucial. Medinat Yisrael, the result of secular Zionism mixed with support of religious leaders who recognized the importance of embracing Jewish autonomy by any means, needs our help through settling her, as Moshe emphatically commanded the Jews in the wilderness. Even those of us who cannot support her in this most ideal and direct way, must use whatever influence we have in the land of our enemies to push leadership towards supporting Israel, and away from her neighbors. We certainly should not be using our influence to do the opposite, to publicly protest her existence and actions, and push for her destruction, following in the spirit of Korach, the Spies, and many other evil Jews in the desert. Unfortunately, many of our brethren, both secular (JStreet) and religious (Neturei Karta), use their considerable influence to push an agenda condemning the State of Israel. Their perspectives, while radically different in many ways, all return to one point- they do not believe in the divine importance of Jews returning home to Eretz Yisrael. They fail to see the connection between Israeli leadership and G-d, whether because of secularism or perceived fanaticism, and, not unlike the Jews of the time of Gedaliah, try to stop the Zionist movement by any means necessary (even, ashamedly, by teaming up with our modern-day Babylonians).

Now, during the Ten Days of Teshuva, is an ideal time to return to G-d’s true will and realize the importance of Jewish autonomy and settlement (and, gasp… become Jewish settlers, Heaven forbid) in our homeland. As we will read on Shabbat:

שׁוּבָה, יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַד, ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי כָשַׁלְתָּ, בַּעֲו‍ֹנֶךָ
Return Israel unto Hashem your G-d, for you have stumbled in your [purposeful and negligent, lit. עון] sins. (הושע יד:ב)

With Hashem’s help, we’ll see our misled brethren returning from their negligent misrepresentation of the State of Israel and embracing G-d’s true vision for our future and redemption, so that, in the merit of this unified support, we will see the coming of the ge’ulah very soon. Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Chatima Tova!