Moses and the Path to Leadership

By Zvi Grumet

Urim Publications, 2014, 239 pages

ISBN 978-965-524-155-6


Zvi Grumet’s informative book on the development of Moses’s leadership ability affords readers an opportunity to psychoanalyze and better understand Israel’s first national leader as well as themselves.

According to Grumet: “The early narratives of Moses’s life point to an essential component of his nature – a zealous passion for justice and an intolerance for unjust suffering. They indicate Moses’s struggle with that zealousness – it is inherent within Moses the Levite, but he recoils from it.” For Moses is a descendant of Jacob’s son Levi, and has inherited his impetuosity. When Levi saw that his sister Dinah was raped, he and his brother Simeon destroyed the entire city where the rape occurred.

We are introduced to Moses’s early over-zealousness when we read that he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew. “Moses slew the Egyptian not only because he would defend and avenge his people, but also because he was not yet fully master of himself.” Moses realizes that his impetuous murder placed him in danger, and he flees to save his life.

Moses reacts with zealotry twice more in his early career and realizes its bad results. When Moses sees many Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, he orders his tribe of Levi to slay them. There is a midrash that contends that “Moses’s zealotry at the Golden Calf was a sin even worse than the Golden Calf itself. Regardless of whether one views Moses’s zealousness at the Golden Calf as positive or negative, the underlying trait emerges with fury.”  Grumet describes the detrimental end: “Ironically, Moses’s zealotry for God results in a seemingly insurmountable barrier between himself and the very people for whom his zealousness” was designed to assist. After his “vigilante campaign” at the Calf, Moses descends the mountain with a radiant face, and the people were afraid to approach him. They may have feared him after viewing his reaction to the Golden Calf worshippers. They may have reacted similarly to the entire tribe of Levi, the killers of  fellow Israelites, for the Bible states that Levi was not counted with the other tribes, they did not camp with them, and did not fight alongside them in future times. “After all, who would want Levi as a neighbor?” God, Grumet adds, recognized their isolation and turned it into an honor.

Moses acted improperly also against Korach. “Faced by a direct challenge against Aaron’s position as high priest, Moses proposes a test involving fire pans and incense.” The outcome would determine “by which fire pan God would choose to send His fire.”  Grumet quotes Nachmanides who suggested that Moses initiated this test on his own initiative and counted on God to come to his aid. Moses recalled that Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu were consumed by fire for bringing an unauthorized incense-offering. He was setting up the mutineers for a similar fate, and it worked. But this over-zealous attempt to quell the uprising resulted in a series of new grumblings against his leadership.

Seeing how his reactions brought calamity, Moses became unsure how to act. When Israelites worshipped idols at Baal-peor, Moses froze, apparently afraid to act, and the situation was resolved by Pinchas, his brother’s grandson, who slew the principle violator.

Grumet describes other errors that Moses made, but sees them as human mistakes that helped Moses grow. For example, Moses “stumbles as he sends the men (to Canaan) on a spying mission rather than the scouting mission God had envisioned.” The improper goal of the first was to determine if the Israelites could defeat the Canaanites when they enter their land. The mission of the second acknowledges that the Israelites will be successful, and whose task was limited to seeing the best way to do so. Moses “further stumbles in failing to anticipate how people other than himself will react to what appears to be insurmountable challenges in the conquest of that land.”  He “helped set up a situation” which resulted in the people’s negative reaction.

Grumet shows how Moses who had rejected the mission to aid his people initially grew in confidence after about a year and a half of leading them, but then regressed with his inappropriate response to the Israelites’ request for water. “But it is not just Moses’s hitting the rock which disappoints, it is every aspect of his handling of this incident – beginning with his falling on his face, through his combative tone – culminating in hitting the rock. Without doubt, this incident is a significant step backwards for God. Moses has been disqualified to take the people to their ultimate destination.” In essence, Grumet is saying that God did not disallow Moses to lead Israel into Canaan because he “sinned,” as many people suppose, but because Moses showed that he lacked the leadership skills necessary to continue leading his people.

But despite this regression, Moses’s leadership abilities improved over the years. At the end of his career after devoting all of his efforts to bringing the Israelites to Canaan, two and a half of the twelve tribes approached Moses and told him they don’t want to settle in Canaan. This was like a slap in his face. How did he react?

“Moses does not fall on his face, run to the Tent of Meeting, or weep – all of which he has done in the past.  He also doesn’t threaten them nor does he ask for miraculous divine intervention, which he has also done in the past. In fact, this incident is the only one in the narrative section of the Torah in which there is no record of Moses consulting with God at all. Particularly in light of his history, and the severity with which he sees this request… Moses has chosen to handle this entirely on his own.”

In short, Grumet shows readers dramatic changes in a human Moses who “struggles with and ultimately learns to harness the power of his passion and zealousness.” He shows Moses facing obstacles and pitfalls, how he is torn between his own spiritual attainments and caring for a somewhat primitive and argumentative people, how he navigates between these two extremes and upholds both and compromises neither. He shows Moses’s “small successes and multiple failures,” and how he learnt from his mistakes, and how in Moses’s final year, “he emerges as a seasoned, polished leader.”