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To Perish for His People

Rabbi Yehoshua Alt

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Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications and is the author of the books, Fascinating Insights and Incredible Insights. His writings inspire people across the spectrum of Jewish observance to live with the vibrancy and beauty of Torah. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes, and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.

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To Perish for His People

Moshe Rabbeinu requests of Hashem: הראני נא את כבודך (“show me Your glory”), to which Hashem responds that one can’t see Me and live.[1]


Didn’t Moshe know this? Why did he think he would be any different?


Being a proper leader requires mastering the trait of humility, since if one is arrogant then he can’t lead the people.[2] A מלך (“king”) needs to have an attitude ofלית מגרמיה כלום (“nothing at all of myself”).[3] Consequently, the initials of this phrase spell out the word מלך.


The word מלך is also composed of the same letters as לכם (“for you”), because he is there “for you,” not for himself.


Sefer Shoftim hints to this idea by repeatedly noting, “there was no king and each one did what was proper in his eyes.”[4] A dedicated king would have shown them the proper path. This is why a Jewish king can’t have too many horses, gold and silver, and wives[5] because he has to be there for the people—he cannot be distracted by too many royal amenities.[6] And a king must always keep with him a Sefer Torah[7] so that he can teach the nation by example.


We see this by Dovid Hamelech who possessed great humility, as he said about himself אנכי תולעת ולא איש (“I am a worm, not a man”).[8] Similarly, Moshe is called “the humblest man” to have ever walked the face of the earth.[9]


In the secular world, the ones who become the leaders are the ones that desire to become leaders. We see how haughty a politician running for office is. This contrasts with the Jewish approach whereby the leaders are the ones who don’t want to become leaders, since they don’t feel worthy of the position.[10]


The Gemara[11] tells us that in the lead-up to Mashaich’s arrival, פני הדור כפני הכלב (“the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog”). פני הדור refers to the leaders who are the representatives and thus the “face” of their generation.[12]


A leader must guide with authority, and teach right from wrong. However, in the period before Moshiach, the leaders will first check to see if their views are well-received. This resembles how a dog acts. When you see somebody walking a dog, the dog tends to walk in front, such that it appears as though the dog is leading its owner. But when it gets to an intersection, the dog looks back at its owner to see where to go.[13] The same is true of politicians as they pretend like they are leading the people, but in reality, they simply gauge what their constituents most want and follow those trends. There is a saying, “Once, special people were famous. Today, famous people are special.”


R’ Baruch Ber Liebowitz remarked that a Jewish leader needs to put his life on the line for the Jewish people. This is how the R’ Moshe Alshich[14] interpretsכי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקדיהם ונתנו איש כפר נפשו: when you appoint a leader let it be one who is moser nefesh for the people.  


In the time of R’ Dovid U’Moshe, one of the great tzadikim of Morrocco, there was an epidemic that had a high death rate. R’ Dovid U’Moshe begged Hashem to take his own life as an atonement for the entire community, instead of the toll that the epidemic would take. As a result of his request, in 1162, he passed away.


Going back to our opening question, Moshe Rabbeinu certainly knew that one cannot see Hashem and live. However, the Gemara[15] informs us that the death of a tzadik atones. When Moshe asked of Hashemהראני נא את כבודך, he was essentially offering to sacrifice his life so that Hashem should “reveal His glory” and thus kill Moshe just so that the Jewish People can attain their atonement for the sin of the עגל.[16] Moshe was truly offering to be moser nefesh for the sake of Klal YisraelHashem’s response: no, because I want you to live.

[1] Shemos 33:18,20.

[2] On the subject of a leader having humility—the Maharam Shick, a student of the Chasam Sofer, said about his rebbe he would say Shalom Aleichem silently because he was so humble that he felt unworthy of being accompanied by malachim.

[3] Cited in Siduro Shel Shabbos 2,1,13 in the name of the Tikunai Zohar.

[4] Such as 17:6. This caused the unfortunate incidents of פסל מיכה and פילגש בגבעה (end of Sefer Shoftim).

[5] Devarim 17:16,17.

[6] Parenthetically, מלך is an acronym for מעם לעם כעם (“from the people, for the people, and like the people”).

[7] Devarim 17:18.

[8] Tehillim 22:7.

[9] Bamidbar 12:3.

[10] See Eruvin 13b, Chullin 89b.

[11] Sota 49b.

[12] See Bereishis Rabba 79:6. See R’ Elchonon Wasserman in Kuntres Ikvos Meshicha who quotes the Chofetz Chaim.

[13] R’ Elchonon Wasserman in Kovetz Maamarim V’agados, p 285.

[14] R’ Moshe Alshich (1508–1593), known as the Alshich Hakodosh was a student of R’ Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, and even referred to him on occasion as “my father.” The Alshich left together with R’ Yosef Karo for Eretz Yisrael, settling in Tzefas, where he was ordained by R’ Karo and eventually served as a judge on R’ Karo’s rabbinical court.

The Alshich’s students include R’ Chaim Vital, whom he ordained in 1590. R’ Chaim Vital considered the Alshich as the greatest authority on Jewish law in the generation after the passing of R’ Yosef Karo.

R’ Vital wrote that the soul of the great amora Ravina—who was one of the two redactors of the Talmud Bavli—had been reincarnated in the Alshich, and at a certain point in the Alshich’s life, the soul of R’ Shmuel Bar Nachmeini was also infused within him.

The Alshich was regarded as a kabbalist, and studied with the Remak, R’ Moshe Cordovero. Although the Alshich learned kabbala from the Arizal, the Arizal wouldn’t accept him as a full student, declaring that the Alshich came to This World in order to rectify the realm of drush (the exegetical/homiletical mode of interpreting Torah). For this reason, when the Alshich sat in on the Arizal’s shiurim, he would fall asleep.

In 1590, the 82-year-old Alshich left Eretz Yisrael for Turkey, Persia and Syria to raise funds for the Jewish community of Tzefas which had been impoverished due to famine. He is buried in Tzefas alongside R’ Shlomo Alkabetz and R’ Yosef Karo.

[15] Moed Katan 28a.

[16] The pasuk says (Shemos 34:8): וימהר משה ויקד ארצה וישתחו (“Moshe hurried to bow his head toward the ground and prostrate himself”). This pasuk comes immediately after the Torah lists Hashem’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which ends with Hashem saying (Shemos 34:7) that He will visit the sins of the parents on their descendants al shilaishim v’al ribaim (“to the third and fourth [generations]”). Moshe hurried to bow so that Hashem wouldn’t continue and say על חמשים (“and to the fifth [generation]”).

The Ibn Ezra (to Shemos 34:8) is bothered by this explanation, noting that if this is the case, then Moshe should be liable for death since he interrupted Hashem while He was talking? The Chasam Sofer (Al Hatorah, Korach, first s.v. boker v’yodah) brings an incredible answer from the Ramban: Indeed, Moshe did something here which should leave him deserving of the death penalty. He did this because of his ahavas yisrael. He was willing to die for the Jewish people in order to spare them from punishment one generation less!

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