By Rav David Silverberg
We read in Parashat Matot of the war that God commanded Benei Yisrael to wage against the nation of Midyan. The Torah writes that soldiers “were handed over” (“va-yimaseru”) from the nation for the purpose of waging this war (31:5), and Rashi, citing the Sifrei, detects from this formulation a degree of ambivalence on the soldiers’ part. They needed to be forced out to battle, Rashi explains, because they heard that Moshe, their beloved leader, would be passing on after this military campaign. Rashi writes:
This teaches you the praise of the shepherds of Israel, how beloved they are to Israel. Before they heard of his [imminent] passing, what does it say – “soon they will stone me!” (Shemot 17:4) – but once they heard that Moshe’s death was dependent upon the revenge against Midyan, they did not want to go until they were conscripted against their will.
Chazal here note the drastic transformation in Benei Yisrael’s attitude towards their leader. Forty years earlier, when they found themselves without water, they were hostile to Moshe, to the point where he felt they were prepared to kill him, whereas now they wanted to delay his passing as much as possible, and refused to wage a battle that they know needed to be fought before he died.
Many writers have noted Rashi’s seemingly peculiar remark that this “teaches you the praise of the shepherds of Israel.” In what way does this change in the people’s feelings towards Moshe reflect upon Moshe’s greatness? Why is it a source of praise for a leader when the people at first despise him but then love him?
The likely answer is that Moshe is praised for sticking with the people even after the hostility they displayed on that occasion in the desert. Moshe did not give up on Benei Yisrael after they acted in a manner which he perceived as threatening to his life. As difficult as that crisis was, he understood that his relationship to the people could still be repaired, that he could again earn their trust and their respect, which he did. Moshe was wise enough to look beyond the present and recognize the nation’s potential for change.
The Sifrei’s comment, then, serves as a valuable reminder to parents and educators that they must be prepared for the “long haul,” that the difficulties and challenges they currently face in the process of child-rearing and education can be overcome. Like Moshe, we need to have confidence in children’s and students’ potential for growth and change, and realize that their present hardships do not preclude the possibility of an outstanding future. Just as Benei Yisrael underwent a significant process of growth over the course of the years spent in the wilderness under the patient, dedicated leadership of Moshe Rabbenu, we must similarly trust in our youngsters’ ability to grow and develop, and show the kind of patience and devotion that Moshe, the faithful shepherd, gave to his beloved flocks.
Originally appears on VBM