Learning How to Lead

Parshat Yitro 5773

I’m trying to understand what Moses said to God just before the giving of the Torah.

Look at these verses (Judaica Press translation):

Exodus 19

21 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall.
22 And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them.”
23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.'”
24 But the Lord said to him, “Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them.”

I’m bothered by Verse 23. What claim is Moses making? Why?

Here’s Rashi’s explanation (my translation):

Exodus 19:23

The people cannot – I do not have to warn them since they have already been warned for three days and they are not able to ascend since they don’t have permission.

Moses believes that since the people have already been warned, that’s enough.

There is no need for a repetition. They’ve heard the message. Of course they will obey.

So far as Moses is concerned, because they don’t have permission to ascend, therefore they won’t even try to ascend. It’s as if they lack the ability to ascend.


I would suggest that God is teaching Moses a lesson in leadership.

The leader needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those he is leading. The leader must not assume that everyone is just like him.

That is to say, while it was enough for Moses to hear a command once and he would obey it, that may not be the case for others.

All of the Jewish people wanted a close relationship with God. They wanted to come as close as possible to Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.

The boundaries were set around the mountain because anyone who came too close would suffer spiritual harm.

But the boundaries and the prior warnings were not enough. The people needed to be warned once more, right before the giving of the Torah. They may not realize their true spiritual level, and would lose control, and would approach too close.

Moses needed to be taught that not everyone had his level of self-awareness was as capable of self-restraint as he was.

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Your Turn

What do you think? How can a person become aware of their true spiritual level?

Share your ideas in the comments.

Picture credit: from flickr – jbtaylor

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

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