Moshe and Aharon - Two Leadership Models

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And I besought Hashem at that time, saying: O L-rd G-D, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Your works, and according to Your mighty acts? Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.

But Hashem was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me. And Hashem said unto me: Let it suffice you. Speak no more unto Me of this matter. (Sefer Devarim 3:23-26)

1. Moshe’s rejected plea to Hashem

In the opening passages of Parshat VaEtchana, Moshe describes one of the most moving tragedies in the Torah. Moshe recounts his petition to Hashem to allow him to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe had promised Bnai Yisrael that he would lead them to the land promised to their forefathers. He had led them to Mount Sinai. There, they had received the Torah which was designed to be implemented in the Land of Israel. Moshe had led the nation in the conquest of Sichon and Og. Bnai Yisrael had taken possession of the lands of these two kingdoms. Now, Bnai Yisrael was poised to cross the Jordan and take possession of the rest of the Land of Cana’an. At last, the long-awaited moment had arrived for the fulfillment of the ancient promise made to the Patriarchs. Moshe beseeches Hashem to allow him to accompany Bnai Yisrael into the land.

Hashem responds to Moshe that his request cannot be granted. He will die and be buried east of the Jordan. He will not enter the land that he has devoted himself to securing for Bnai Yisrael. Hashem directs Moshe to offer no further petition and not to continue to beseech Him. The degree is final. He will not enter the land.

2. Moshe prayed alone

Moshe had secured Hashem’s pardon of Bnai Yisrael after the sin of the Egel – the Golden Calf. He persuaded Hashem to spare the nation from immediate destruction when the people rebelled and refused to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe had succeeded in his advocacy on behalf of the nation but he failed when he prayed on his own behalf.

Midrash Rabbah comments that Moshe failed to secure Hashem’s pardon because he prayed alone. Moshe prayed but Bnai Yisrael was silent.1 The nation did not pray for Moshe. The people did not plead with Hashem to allow its leader to enter the Land of Israel with the nation he had delivered from the bondage of Egypt and led through the barren, terrible wilderness. The midrash implies that had the people pleaded with Hashem on Moshe’s behalf, their prayers would have been accepted. Why were the people silent? Why did they not beseech Hashem to spare their leader?

And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:29)

And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. So the days of weeping in the mourning for Moses were ended. (Sefer Devarim 34:8)

3. The entire nation felt the tragedy of Aharon’s death

The Torah recounts the deaths of Aharon and Moshe. In both instances the Torah tells us that the nation mourned its fallen leader for thirty days. However, Avot D’Ribbbi Natan notes a slight variation in the Torah’s descriptions of these two events. In describing the communal mourning and anguish over the death of Aharon, the Torah emphasizes that the entire nation participated. In its description of the mourning that followed the loss of Moshe, the Torah does not emphasize the involvement of the entire nation. The contrast in the passages suggests to the Sages that the anguish over the loss of Aharon was universal. Moshe’s death did not elicit the same response. What is the reason for the people’s varying responses?

Avot D’Ribbi Natan responds that Aharon’s death was universally recognized as a tragedy because he had been a peacemaker within the nation. The Sages explain that he reconciled husbands and wives, and he mended relations between friends. Moshe demanded the nation’s obedience to the Torah. He sternly warned them of the serious consequences of deviating from the mitzvot. He rebuked and chastised the people for their failings and shortcoming. The different roles of Moshe and Aharon evoked very different responses.2 The people loved both. However, their relationship with Moshe included a degree of ambivalence that was absent from their untainted affection for Aharon.

This raises an interesting question. Why did Moshe not adopt the more conciliatory methods of his brother Aharon. Why did Moshe resort to rebuke whereas Aharon sought to foster healing and reconciliation?

4. Moshe and Aharon’s different styles of leadership

The Sages provide a well-known example of Aharon’s method. Aharon would approach each of the parties to a bitter dispute and describe to him the terrible pain and agony that the other party is experiencing over the rift. Each of the parties would be moved by the pain and regret of his perceived adversary and seek to bring an end to the conflict.3

This example provides an important insight into Aharon’s priorities. Aharon’s priority was to restore the relationship between two alienated parties. He made no effort to determine which party had been wronged and which had acted improperly. If fraternity was restored without either party assessing his own culpability in the dispute or acknowledging wrongdoing, Aharon viewed his work as completed. Aharon was not educating the disputants; he was assuming the role of a conciliator.

Moshe was the nation’s teacher and mentor. He taught the people the Torah and its mitzvot. His role was to educate the people. This required that he not only communicate the Torah’s mitzvot but also facilitate their implementation. Therefore, whereas Aharon pursued a path of conciliation, Moshe was assigned the role of serving as judge. Moshe’s responsibility was to identify the proper behaviors and those not proper and to educate the nation regarding the distinction.

5. Together the two leadership styles create a healthy community

Moshe and Aharon shared a concept of leadership. Both understood that the role of a leader is to not only speak about and preach values and proper behaviors, a true leader must also work with the community to implement these values and behaviors. Without this element, the lessons taught by the leader are mere platittudes that will not find consistent implementation among the members of the community. However, Moshe and Aharon served different roles as leaders of the nation.

Both leadership roles are required. A community can only survive and prosper if its members coexist in an environment of mutual respect and appreciation. However, ultimately, the community must have purpose and meaning. In order for a community to identify, understand, embrace, and live by its purpose and values, education is essential. Lofty values that are not implemented are meaningless. Therefore, leaders of Moshe’s mold are essential. They educate the community and encourage the implementation of Torah values in the actual fabric of the community’s existence. Leaders of Aharon’s type are also essential. They nurture peace and harmony and remind us that we are a single community and people.

1. Midrash Rabbah Sefer Devarim 7:10.

22. Avot D’Ribbi Natan 12:4.

3. Avot D’Ribbi Natan 12:3.