A Failure of Leadership


This is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term “awesome” tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome.  Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” Thus Moses commences to “sing out” the majesty of God (the word for poem in Hebrew, shir, is also the word for song).

Immediately following this powerful discourse comes God’s command to Moses to “ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain … for you broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the  waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people. You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it — the land that I am giving to the  Israelite people.”

One key Torah verse brilliantly sums it up: “You shall not profane My holy name, that  I may be sanctified  in the midst of the  Israelite people —  I the Eternal who sanctify you.”

(Leviticus 22:32-33)

Why was Moses, the quintessentially loyal servant of God, punished by being forced to die outside the Land of  Israel but in full view of its beauty? This is one of the most puzzling questions of the Torah. It seems that virtually every Bible commentator tries to explain the problem, but the explanations do not satisfy.

Whatever it was that Moses did was a failure to sanctify God’s name. According to our tradition, we are always expected to sanctify God’s name in our living behavior. If we act poorly, we profane God’s name. When we act ethically and with dignity we sanctify God’s name. This is even more important for community leaders. When leaders act improperly or take advantage of their office  for personal gain, they are  supposed to lead, they are  engaging in chilul Hashem, desecrating God’s name.

One key Torah verse brilliantly sums it up: “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Eternal who sanctify you” (Leviticus 22:32-33). That is to say, do not engage in chilul Hashem. Be just and compassionate and fair. Such behavior is a public declaration of God’s sanctity and more. By sanctifying God’s name through our modest good conduct, we  step into a dynamic relationship through which God also sanctifies us.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone teaches  medieval Jewish Torah commentary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. A version of  this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

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