When told by God of his imminent death, Moses reacts petulantly. Part of his reaction may be discounted as self-serving. After all, Moses does not want to die. He wants to lead the people Israel to their destination: Israel. But part of his reaction is a noble sense of concern for the often-obstinate people he leads. Moses feared that with his demise the Israelites would become like sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17). Rabbi Abraham Menahem ben Jacob Rapoport – a sixteenth century Italian commentator – addresses the implication of this concern (Minhah Belulah, ad loc.).
Rabbi Rapoport explains that one errant animal can easily lead astray the entire flock. One animal sets off on a mistaken course and, like the sheep they are, all the others would follow instinctively. In order to prevent the wayward movement of sheep, the flock requires a shepherd who will keep them to the right direction. By analogy, Moses argues that the Israelites require a leader who will not go astray but a good shepherd who can guide the flock home. In other words, the Israelites need Moses. Accordingly, Moses argues that he deserves a reprieve for the sake of the greater good of his flock.
Moses’ argument seems compelling. As Carl van Doren once said: “The race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves in conformity.” People are willing to believe almost anything and follow popular trends, eagerly and sometimes ravenously following fads. The people Israel are no different. Jews throughout history have bought into the trends of society that seem much more attractive than the teachings of Torah. As Dennis Prager has aptly observed in contemporary times: “Few American Jews take Judaism seriously because they already have a deep and passionate commitment to another religion – liberalism.” Jews have embraced the ideas and ideals of modern, Western, democratic society even when they may conflict with the teachings of Torah.
Yet despite the cogency of Moses’ argument, God insists that Moses will not continue. Joshua will be appointed in his place. And since Joshua is imbued with the same spirit as Moses (Numbers 27:18), he will follow the proper course. In the end, it is not the leader that matters, but the commitment of the leader to the right direction that counts most.