Once upon a time, there was a shepherd named Moshe, who was visited by Gd. Gd asked him to lead the Jewish people; Moshe refused. Gd was persistent, though, and eventually, in the face of Divine Rage, Moshe resigned himself to his mission.
Ten מכות (plagues), a split sea and bread from heaven followed, along with a good deal of trouble and self-doubt. But, somehow, Moshe ended up not only leading the nation, but doing all of the leading personally. The נשיאים (tribal leaders), and even Moshe’s personal prophet, Aharon, were shut out of Moshe’s monopoly – so that when Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro visited, he found Moshe holding court from morning to night, handling every individual problem directly. Moshe had no delegates, no subsidiaries.
How did this happen? How did the reluctant pawn of Gd, the most humble human being to walk the earth, come to arrogate sole authority over the Jewish people for himself?
Part of it may have been Moshe’s attitude toward the nation; on several occasions Moshe betrayed a personal sense that the Jewish people were not ready for prime time, and could not be trusted. But as I read Moshe’s original assignment and then Yisro’s speech to Moshe in this parshah, I see more at work here. As I understand it, Moshe believed that he was not allowed to delegate his responsibilities to others – and with good reason.
In our civil interactions, Judaism recognizes an entity called a שליח (shaliach), a proxy. A שליח is an agent we appoint for a mission, to act on our behalf.
Moshe was appointed as a שליח, in the most literal sense of the word. Gd was under contract to the Jewish people, dating back 430 years to the time of Avraham and Sarah, to liberate them from Egypt and bring them to Israel – and Gd farmed out the task to Moshe, to act on His behalf.
Gd even used the terminology of שליחות four times in just six pesukim when He first attempted to send Moshe, saying ואשלחך אל פרעה, כי אנכי שלחתיך, אהיה שלחני אליכם and אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב שלחני אליכם. And, of course, Moshe refused by saying שלח נא ביד תשלח, Send someone else as Your formal שליח.
That Moshe is a formal שליח of Gd is a theme that played out across his career, such as when Gd asked Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring wealth out of Egypt, because that would fulfill Gd’s contract to rescue the Jews from Egypt with great wealth. It may even be why Moshe eventually lost his job – he deviated from his שליחות by hitting the rock to produce water.
Because Moshe is a formal שליח, he understands that he cannot assign his job to someone else. As the gemara explains, מילי לא ממסרן לשליח, A proxy cannot transmit his mission to a third party. When I give someone a job to do, the working assumption is that I want more than just for the mission to be completed; I want that person to attempt the mission.
And Gd wants Moshe, the Divinely assigned שליח, to be the one to attempt this mission. Moshe cannot assign his job to another person, he cannot ask Aharon, whose job is to be a prophet, or the נשיאים, whose job is to represent their tribes, to take over a leadership position by serving as a judge. The job belongs to Moshe, and Moshe alone.
And beyond the technical point – Moshe feels the personal responsibility of a שליח, he is a man on a mission, and he cannot see relinquishing this responsibility. This is his job, and, succeed or fail, he will see it through.
Yitro understands this – which is why he stresses that Moshe will still keep his role of teaching the Jews and guiding their spiritual growth, and why he qualifies with וצוך אלקים, that this new plan will be acceptable only with Divine approval. The original משלח, the One who assigned Moshe his Sisyphean task, is the only One who may re-apportion the labor – and then Moshe will not be dropping responsibility but rather following Divine instructions.
This idea of שליחות and taking personal responsibility is not only an abstract lesson regarding Moshe’s historic mission; rather, it is crucial to the way we understand and embrace our role as Jews. Gd assigns a task to Moshe because He wants Moshe, specifically, to do it; Gd assigns Torah, mitzvot, a communal role, my mission in life, to me, because Gd wants me, as a Jew, specifically, to do it.
To borrow from Rabbi Tarfon: לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה, Your responsibility is not necessarily to succeed – but you cannot desist, we cannot re-assign the job, appoint surrogates and expect that they will take care of the job as we would have, or even better. My job as a Jew is to do it, myself. There is no such thing as Judaism by proxy.
Failure is not a reason to re-assign a task – we must continue to try, as Moshe did
Some might argue that failure would be grounds for farming out a task, that our inability to meet Divine expectations is reason enough to leave the task to others – but Moshe’s actions at the start of our parshah deny this argument. Moshe insisted on judging cases himself, even though it was patently obvious, as Yitro noted, that he must fail.
Moshe would have failed at his task, but it was still Moshe’s task – and the same is true for my Judaism. Gd wants me to do it, to try, to sweat, to meet or exceed or fail expectations, but it is my task, for me, and it is not for me to hand it off to another until Gd decides it is time to appoint another. Gd wants me to try – and Gd wants all of us to try.
1. This does not end with the usual "closer" type of summary and kicker, because we are honoring some dedicated volunteers this Shabbat, and I am seguing from this derashah into comments about our honoreers.
2. The gemara's comment that one cannot pass of שליחות to another is Gittin 66b. See also Avnei Miluim 38:2.
3. Regarding Moshe's suspicion of the nation's abilities: Think of והן לא יאמינו לי, and of Moshe offering the Torah to the zekeinim instead of the am, and of עוד מעט וסקלוני, and of שמעו נא המורים. Not that they had not given Moshe cause to doubt, of course!
4. One may appoint a שליח to perform a mitzvah on his behalf, of course. However, that is a שליחות which is built into the mitzvah, licensed by the Torah itself.
5. I don't have time to look it up at the moment, but I'm fairly certain there is material relevant to this theme in Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' wonderful book, To Heal a Fractured World.
6. Because this was a derashah rather than a class, I did not address one major question this raises: How do I know my mission? How do I know that Gd wants me to do what I am doing now - perhaps my mission is something else entirely?
Moshe knows, because Gd told him - but how do we?