Parshat Ekev: Walking the Tightrope of Leadership

“I grabbed the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes” (Devarim 9,17).

My earliest memory of synagogue as a child in Pittsburgh was of tangible and painful boredom. I would always put my finger on the last page in the Gates of Prayer prayer book, and with the turn of every page, I would feel a gentle relief as we slowly neared the end of the service, and I would be free to attack the oneg table. 

But despite my lack of interest, I still felt a sense of respect for the space, and for the rabbi, and for the man known as Marvin who sat on the bima with the rabbi. As we stood and sat, sang and chanted, we always faced Marvin. So is it so surprising that as an eight-year-old kid I thought that Marvin was God? I mean, we’re all facing him, even the rabbi, so he must be the one that we’re praying to, right? This case of mistaken identity was revealed one Friday night at the oneg, where with my plate full of bowtie cookies, as Marvin entered the room I yelled out, “Look, there’s God!”

After the laughter died down, I got my first theology lesson from my dad. And I realized that it was indeed not Marvin the synagogue president that we were facing, but the Aron, which held the Torah. The Torah was beautifully dressed and adorned with crowns, and even as a child who was pained by the synagogue experience, I sensed its value. 

So when we read this week about Moshe smashing the two tablets written by the finger of God, why are we not shocked? Imagine a rowdy member of the congregation who felt slighted by the rabbi running up to the bima during the Torah reading, picking up the Torah, and slamming it to the ground! Can you imagine the gasp from the congregation! And here we read about Moshe breaking the stone tablets written by the finger of God! What was Moshe’s justification for such a destructive act? And what was God’s response to it?

In Moshe’s first-person retelling, the topic of the tablets comes up through a general warning about their behavior and their relationship to the Land of Canaan:

“Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people” (Devarim 9:6).

The harsh rebuke continues, as Moshe makes mention of how the nation acted defiantly against God from the moment they left Egypt. And then, he reminds them of their ultimate betrayal; the making of a golden calf. Though Moshe’s retelling is not linear, the main point is clear: God was so angry that God threatened to wipe all of them out and start afresh with Moshe. 

And what was Moshe’s reaction to seeing the nation worshiping the golden calf?

“I grabbed the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes” (Devarim 9,17).

The simple reading suggests that Moshe threw down the tablets as an expression of God’s anger, and of the negation of the covenant between God and Israel. If these laws which the nation heard with their own ears represented the outline of the relationship, then they had broken the terms. The Sages paint a painful image of this event when they compare the sin of the calf to a wife cheating on her husband while they are still under the chuppah

So if Moshe indeed broke the tablets as an expression of God’s anger, then we can also understand the Talmud that teaches God’s untold response to Moshe’s brazen act: Yashar koachecha she’shebarta, i.e., Moshe, you did the right thing. So egregious was this act that this Divine gift is no longer appropriate for them. Indeed, the second set of tablets are written by Moshe, and not by the finger of God.

But of course there is another reading, one that shines a different light on Moshe and his leadership. The great Chassidic master Rav Tzadok HaKohen explains that Moshe did not break the tablets as an expression of Divine anger; Moshe smashed the tablets in order to close the great gap between him and the nation. 

Moshe had just spent 40 days and nights without food or drink, communing with the Divine. The nation had just built an idol out of their most precious metals. The distance between the two could not be greater. So in order to come down to their level, he breaks the tablets; it’s not only that the nation that is unworthy of them, but also as their leader he is now unworthy of giving them this gift. He is too far removed from them. He has spent too much time in the ivory tower, so to speak, and he has lost touch with his people. 

Moshe understands this from God’s statement, “go down quickly.” Not only must Moshe run down the mountain to save the nation from further sin, but he must come down from his own spiritual level to meet the people where they are; if he does not, they cannot be saved, and he will become the father of a new nation.

Moshe records his response: “I threw myself down before the Lord…”(Devarim 9,18). He throws himself before God, illustrating not only his humility and self-sacrifice, but also illustrating his own place. He is making himself lowly like his nation, and God cannot give up on him or them. According to this reading, God’s response of, “you did right” takes on a different connotation; here it means that God applauded Moshe for realizing that he could not lead if he could not be a part of the people.

Moshe is offering us a powerful message about leadership, and the importance of staying connected with one’s constituency. It is a delicate tightrope that one must walk, where a leader needs to both be above yet totally with their people. If the leader floats too high without bringing the people with them, then they can disconnect. But if the leader is too close to the people, that is no good either, as then they become “just one of the guys or gals,” and lose their power of influence. This offers good parenting advice as well; a parent should not be their child’s friend, giving up on their authority over the child. But if the parents become too authoritarian, and can’t get on the ground and play with the kid, then something essential is lacking as well. 

How important is this lesson? Moshe had to destroy the tablets written by God to teach it to the nation and to teach it to all of us. So what do you think? How can we integrate this delicate balance of leadership by both being connected to but separate from our people? Can you think of any modern leaders who have embodied this powerful teaching?

Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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