Respect, Reverence, and Relatability: Tensions in Torah Leadership by Rabbi Yehuda Chanales


Have you ever watched a group of students stand as their teacher walks into the room? How about a Shul filled with Chassidim who stand as their revered Rebbe enters? Imagine the following scene described in this week’s Parashah: "VeHayah KeTzeit Moshe El HaOhel Yakumu Kol HaAm VeNitzvu Ish Petach Ohalo VeHibitu Acharei Moshe Ad Bo'o HaOhelah…VeRa’ah Chol HaAm Et Amud HeAnan Omeid Petach HaOhel VeKam Kol HaAm VeHishtachavu Ish Petach Ohalo," "And it came to pass, when Moshe went out unto the tent, that all the people rose up and stood, every man at his tent door, and looked after Moshe, until he was gone into the tent...And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud stand at the door of the tent, all the people rose up and stood, every man at his tent door" (Shemot 33:8-10). According to the Pesukim, every time Moshe exited the camp to speak with Hashem in the newly established Ohel Mo’eid, the entire nation would stand as he left and stand again as they watched the Anan, Hashem's cloud, descend to speak to him. Why was it so important for the people to stand and watch all of this happen, and how is this part of the response to the people’s sin regarding Cheit HaEigel?

The broader context of this ritual also seems problematic. Following the sin of the Eigel, Moshe places a tent outside of the camp which becomes the new location for people to “seek” Hashem and for Moshe to meet with Him. Time and time again within the span of four Pesukim, the Torah emphasizes the word “Ohel,” tent, and its distance from the “Machaneh,” camp. Why was it so important that the place to find Hashem be separated from the camp? Wouldn’t we expect that, after such a great sin like Cheit HaEigel, the people would need greater access and closeness to Hashem’s presence? Why was creating a sense of distance so vital?

Understanding the deeper source of Cheit HaEigel may help us understand the importance of this antidote. According to the simple reading of the Pesukim, the people made the Eigel to replace their leader Moshe. The Pasuk states the reason for the Eigel’s creation: "Ki Zeh Moshe HaIsh Asher He'elanu MeiEretz Mitzrayim Lo Yadanu Meh Hayah Lo," "As this Moshe, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him" (Shemot 32:1). By carefully reading the Pasuk, we notice that the people describe Moshe, and not Hashem, as the one who took them out of Egypt. Perhaps Moshe’s closeness to them, his existence as “HaIsh,” the human man, led to a greater sense of dependence on Moshe and an assumption that he could take care of all of their needs.

After Cheit HaEigel, a plan was needed to deemphasize Moshe’s humanity and create a distance between him and the people. By standing outside their tents and watching Moshe leave the camp to speak to God, the people would recognize that Moshe and Hashem are separate and distinct from themselves. By seeing the cloud descend to speak to him and the mask on his face that covered his glow, the people were constantly reminded of the unique connection that Moshe had with Hashem and that, indeed, Moshe was closer to living a divine existence than to their ordinary human lives.

We live in an age where most of us find religion inspiring because of the way it integrates into our regular daily lives. In many ways Judaism asks us to live a more noble human life instead of abandoning our humanity. Similarly, religious leaders gain greater credibility based on the extent to which they can relate to the “regular” lives of their constituents. While all this is critical, this week’s Parashah reminds us that sometimes our inspiration must come from the distance that we recognize between ourselves and Hashem. Our leaders and teachers must, on occasion, command a sense of reverence and respect by being different. Ironically, this sense of reverence may give us more of a sense of initiative and feeling that we need to move and improve ourselves in order to bridge the gap. Through that feeling of distance, we may also be inspired to be Mevakeshei Hashem even if it requires us to go leave our comfort zones and go MiChutz LaMachaneh or to remain standing for a long time!

(Post-script: For an interesting contrast, consider the story of Eldad UMeidad in Parashat BeHa’alotecha. This story also emphasizes the words “Ohel” and “Machaneh” but, according to Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein (in his work Tzir VaTzon), presents the downside of Moshe’s distance from the people – an inability to relate and respond to their trivial desires and complaints.)

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