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Moshe – Not Just our Greatest Leader but the Definition of Altruism

By Rabbi Alex Chapper

It must have been the most devastating moment in his life.  Having led a fractious and argumentative people for forty years, from slavery to freedom and through the wilderness to the verge of the Promised Land, Moshe is told by Hashem that he will not enter it with them.  Instead he is to ascend Har Nevo so that he can be shown the Land in its entirety and there he “will be gathered to his people” – passing away without fulfilling his life’s work and dream of leading the Jewish People in the Land of Israel.

How would we react to such news?  How would we feel if we were told we could see our prize but we could not touch it?  How much would we plead and beg to be allowed it even for a moment?

Having petitioned Hashem on previous occasions on behalf of the people, sometimes when they did not deserve it, we would at least expect Moshe to do the same here for his own sake and yet, this time he desists.  Instead of him pleading his case, his only response is to ask Hashem to appoint a suitable leader so that the nation would not be left “like sheep without a shepherd”.

The question is obvious.  Why did Moshe not daven to Hashem that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel?  Why was he more concerned about a successor than completing his own mission?

Rashi quotes the Midrash to explain Moshe’s surprising action – לְהוֹדִיעַ שִׁבְחָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים כְּשֶׁנִּפְטָרִים מִן הָעוֹלָם מַנִּיחִים צָרְכָן, וְעוֹסְקִין בְּצָרְכֵי צִבּוּר – to show the praise of the righteous: when they are about to depart from the world, they abandon all thought of their own affairs and occupy themselves with the affairs of the community.

The Torah records Moshe’s incredible response as it displays the hallmark of the righteous who, to the very end, are more concerned for the needs of others than their own. Without blinking an eye, Moses puts aside any personal feelings of disappointment and, given the circumstances, this was a remarkably altruistic reaction.

I find this episode deeply moving not only because it is a uniquely selfless act but also because it represents perhaps the most powerful parting message by our greatest ever leader.  With his final breaths, Moshe reminds us that no-one lives in a vacuum, no-one can be so self-obsessed that they cannot think of others and no-one is bigger than the community.

Perhaps Moshe’s greatest legacy to his beloved nation is an imperative for us that we must look beyond our own individual needs and think more about how we can help others rather than just ourselves and that each of us must find our place in and give of ourselves to the community.

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