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Leadership Accountability Requires an Equal Standard

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 18/07/2021

How do we ensure leadership accountability? What does the Torah teach us when it comes to judgement of senior members of the community?

Dr. Gila Vachman, lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and director of Torah Lishma, Tel Aviv, explains why Moses receives a harsh punishment for a seemingly small sin. Parashat Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah reading, helps us understand leadership accountability and the severity of judgment against Moses and Aaron and why they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

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Should people of senior status, leaders and judges, be given preferential treatment? Is it right to be more forgiving of their sins?

The verses that open Parashat Va’etchanan (and the midrashim about them) teach us that the standards should be equal for all. Indeed, not only should those elected not be given preferential treatment but on the contrary, in the case where a leader sins, these standards should even be stricter.

Va’etchanan is the second portion in the book of Deuteronomy and it is always read on the Shabbat after Tisha Be’Av. It includes some of the most famous sections in the Torah, milestones of Judaism such as the Ten Commandments and the Shema prayer, but the most moving verses appear at the beginning of the reading. In these verses, Moses pleads before God and begs Him to be allowed to cross the Jordan river and see with his own eyes the Promised Land:

וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה’ בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר… אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן…

“I pleaded with the Lord at that time saying… Let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 3:23, 25).

Moses knows that it was decreed that he would not enter the Promised Land, yet he does not accept this judgment. This is not the first time he dares to argue with God and tries to change God’s mind or at least moderate His severe judgment. He did so after ,חטא העגל the sin of the golden calf, when God intended to destroy His people, as well as after המרגלים ,חטא the sin of the spies. In both cases, God accepted his prayer and canceled the decree. But not this time:  וַיִּתְעַבֵּר ה’ בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me (Deuteronomy 3:26)

Why did God refuse to listen to Moses? Why didn’t He defer to him as He did in previous cases? The explanation that Moses himself provides to these questions is concealed in the word למענכם. According to the peshat, the simple and direct meaning of this word is “on your account,” “because of you.” That is, you caused me to sin and be punished when you fought with me at  מי מריבה, the incident in which Moses hit the rock.

But the midrash has a different and even an opposite explanation:

God said to him, “Moses, you are an example for judges. They will say, ‘If the wisest of all wise, the greatest of all great, Moses, was not forgiven for saying המורים נא שמעו, Hear, now, you rebels, but it was decreed that he not enter the Land of Israel, then those who delay judgment and those who pervert justice, how much more so!’” (Sifrei)

According to this Midrash, the reason for God’s refusal is societal or moral: Moses serves as an example of leadership accountability for judges of all times and places, that they should not think that their high-ranking position allows them to disregard the common people, distort their judgment or delay it, and get out of it without punishment. Even Moses, the father of all prophets, the leader of the nation, does not get any preferential treatment from God and even gets severely punished just because he used offensive language towards the people when he said:

שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם? (Numbers 20:10).

It is also noteworthy that Moses did not pervert anyone’s judgment and did not cause injustice. All that he did was to disregard the thirsty, complaining people, calling them ‘rebels.’ It is hard to blame him after all the years in the company of these ungrateful people who kept complaining. Yet, God does not favor him and decrees the same punishment for both Moses and also Aaron, who was castigated many years previously due to the spies who spoke badly about the Land of Israel and the people who followed them. They would not enter the Promised Land but rather were left to die in the desert.

Seemingly, this is an injustice: the small sin (contempt) does not suit the heavy punishment (death in the desert). On further thought, however, this is a natural and obvious conclusion. In order to ensure leadership accountability, a leader who despises his people, who cannot identify with their pain and difficulties, cannot go on leading them, nor may he expect a pardon from the judge of the whole nation. Moses understands this. His time has passed, and he must make way for a new leader, Joshua, his disciple and servant, who will conquer the land and pass it on to the Children of Israel. And maybe that is also the meaning of the word למענכם – for your benefit, you deserve another, more tolerant leader.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Illustration: By the Providence Lithograph Company –, Public Domain,

Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.


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