Friday, January 08, 2010

Shemot (Aggadah)

A slightly different version of this essay appears in Hebrew in this week’s Shabbat Shalom, the weekly parsha newsletter of the religious zionist peace movement. For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at January 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Moshe Rabbenu: The Making of a Leader

The Torah does not tell us much about the personal lives of its heroes. This is particularly true of Moshe Rabbenu, “the father of the prophets,” a monumental figure, understood by Hazal as standing between heaven and earth. The little that we do know about Moses’ private life appears in the present week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, in which we learn about his birth, his coming to maturity, and his early life before he became “Moses our Teacher,” “the man of God,” the vehicle through which the Torah was given to Israel (“The Torah commanded us by Moses is a heritage of the community of Jacob”; Deut 33:4). However, it seems to me that these chapters, particularly Exodus 2–4, may be read under the heading of “the making of a leader.” Through a careful reading of these passages, one may see how Moses developed and was prepared for leadership, through a series of formative events.

We begin with his birth, with the cruel decree of Pharaoh that “every son born shall be cast into the Nile” (Expd 1:22), and his being saved and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh (albeit, his true mother, Yocheved, arranged to be near him in infancy in the role of wetnurse). The fact of his growing up in the royal palace afforded him a certain degree of leisure: an opportunity to learn, to think, to look at the world around him, without the oppressive burden of slavery that was the lot of his brethren. Indeed, it is interesting to note that many of the revolutionary leaders in world history, even those who lead movements of the most miserable and downtrodden people, grew up in the middle class, in relatively comfortable circumstances, which gave them greater opportunities for intellectual development and breadth of perspective.

The first act by which Moses broke the conventions of the social framework within which he had been raised was the murder of the Egyptian. Here he expressed his anger and moral passion, his understanding of the injustice involved in his own social milieu. But he did so in an impulsive manner, without much thought or consideration of the long-term results—very much in the manner of young people who first discover the injustice in the world and feel the need to act.

If I may indulge in a personal digression: “I was young, and I have aged.” As some readers may know (and as I’ve alluded from time to time), I had a radical youth. Like just about everybody, as I have matured/aged/become “established,” I have become more cautious, “responsible,” “worldly-wise,” and in retrospect I look with astonishment at some of the rash things I was prepared to do in those days: viz. my willingness to risk all for a matter of principle—particularly, to avoid even symbolic cooperation with the US war effort in Vietnam,. How am I to relate to that younger self? Have age and experience indeed brought wisdom and experience, or am I in some sense also a lesser person for my greater caution and more calculated approach to life? While an older man cannot be the same as his own impetuous, younger self, it seems to me important that he at least remember and understand what ha felt at that time, and seek to somehow incorporate it within his more mature, adult life. At times I see older people who have visibly maintained some of the sparkle and passion of youth, and I admire and perhaps even envy them.

In the next verse Moses intervenes in a dispute between “two Hebrew people who were quarreling,” saying to “the wicked one” (that is, the aggressor), “Why do you hit your fellow?” (2:13). He does not use violence in order to turn the aggressor from his actions; rather, he tries to address his feelings of brotherhood, of belonging to the same community. Here too he acts in an intuitive manner, but without understanding how to persuade the other. The latter derides him in a mocking, scornful manner, causing Moses to realize that “Indeed, the matter [i.e., of the murder of the Egyptian] has become known” (v. 14) and that he must flee Egypt. He goes into exile, to the wilderness of Midian, where once again, his natural sense of justice moves him to action—this time, to save a group of maidens, seven sisters, who have come to draw water from the well, from the shepherds who are harassing them. Their father invites him to his home and, in due course, he marries one of the daughters, Zipporah, and becomes a member of the household.

What was Yitro’s role in Moses’ development? The Torah tells us very little about him; however, I would like to suggest that he served as a kind of father figure in Moses’ life. He did not at all know his natural father, Amram, as his parents were forced to place him in the basket in the bulrushes while he was still an infant, simply to save his life. It also seems reasonable to assume that Pharaoh, the cruel tyrant in whose home he grew up, was not exactly a positive educational model (to rather understate the case). Thus, Yitro may well have served as a significant educator and moral guide. (This is possibly expressed in the great honor shown him by Moses when the latter came to visit him in the wilderness; see Exodus 18). Moses’ lengthy stay in Midian also served as a period of preparation for the central task of his life which he was to fulfill in the future. Again, in the biographies of great leaders we often read of a period of exile—whether in prison, in remote places such as Siberia, or simple periods of “gestation,” spent studying, reading, thinking about the world—before they emerged onto the stage of public life. Thus, rhe Midrash relates that Moses’ work as a shepherd served as a kind of preparation, or testing, for his future function as a leader:

“And Moses was a shepherd” (Exodus 3:1). The blessed Holy One does not give greatness to a man until he tests him in a small thing, and thereafter raises him up to greatness. Thus, two great figures were examined by the blessed Holy One in a small matter and found trustworthy, and were then raised to greatness. David was examined in shepherding the flock... as was Moses.

Our Rabbis said: When Moses our Teacher, of blessed memory, was shepherding the flock of Yiteo in the wilderness, a kid ran away, and he ran after him until he arrived at a bulbous plant (allium). When he came to the plant he saw a pool of water where the kid was standing and drinking. Moses came up to him and said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You must be tired.” So he placed him on his shoulder and carried him back. The blessed Holy One said to him: You have shown compassion to shepherd the flock of flesh and blood; by your life, you shall shepherd my flock Israel. This is: “And Moses was a shepherd”—Exodus Rabbah 2.3; 2.2

However, the decisive turning point in Moses’ life was his direct encounter with God at Mount Horeb, at the bush that “burned but was not consumed” (Exod 3:2). I would like to read this entire chapter as a kind of “lesson” which God gave Moses on the meaning of being a leader.

What is symbolized by God calling to him from within the bush? Was this a mere “curiosity,” something contrary to the laws of nature, or something deeper? I find it reminiscent of the fire in the Temple, which burned constantly upon the altar without being extinguished. According to Hasidic teaching, this symbolizes the inner fire with which the heart of the true servant of God is constantly aflame; all the more so that the heart of a leader must burn like that bush with a constant passion and desire to fulfill his historical task of leading the people towards its destiny.

A leader has two basic functions: on the one hand, to represent the people before external factors (such as Pharaoh), to serve as a kind of “foreign minister,” as a spokesman to the one who controls their lives; and, on the other hand, to lead the people, to educate them, to explain to them what they need to do, to encourage them, and comfort them in times of distress and trouble so that they not lose hope.

Thus, Moses’ encounter with God began with a call for him to go to Pharaoh and to “take out My people, the children of Israel, from Egypt” (3:10)—in the most literal sense. Thereafter Moses asks: “When the people ask me, ‘What is the name of this God’ [who commands me to confront Pharaoh, the strong, frightening, omnipotent ruler of Egypt; to placed both myself and the people in a situation of new danger], what shall I tell them?” (3:13). A leader must know how to speak to the people, how to overcome their doubts and hesitations and fears, and how to give them an answer (and it may well be that these same questions and misgivings reside in his own heart). God answers him with a rather laconic statement—possibly an answer, possibly a kind of vague promise: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh—“I will be that which I shall be” (v. 14). But immediately thereafter, He adds: “The Lord God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name for ever, and this is my remembrance for every generation” (v. 15).

In the third stage, Moses asks what signs and proof he may bring the people in order to prove the truth of his words. At this stage he is given a series of signs and miracles to display to the people: the staff which turns into a serpent and back again; Moses’ hand, which he places in his breast and becomes leprous, white as snow, and then returns to be living flesh; and the transformation of the water into blood—that is, an anticipation of the series of ten plagues. The idea here is that a true leader must know how to speak to the people on a level that they understand, even if on what seems the low, corporeal level of concretization, of miracles—and not only through abstract ideas about a transcendent God, understood by only a few.

Finally, in the fourth stage, God forces Moses to confront his own lack of self-confidence. Moses already expressed this at the beginning (“Who am I that I shall go to Pharaoh”; 3:11), but at the end he returns to the same feeling: “for I am a man heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10). It is important that a leader believe in his own power to lead others; without that, he is lost from the outset. This is both the power and the danger involved in charisma: a charismatic person can generally convince others to follow him, whether he is an upright, ethical person who speaks words of truth and holiness, or whether he is a charlatan, a liar and an evil man (and we have experienced too many sad examples of the latter)—and the opposite is also the case. An honest and holy person, but lacking in this power, will influence, if at all, only a small, select group of people. This, unfortunately, is human nature.

At this stage, when Moses is on the verge of refusing God’s mission, saying “Send with whom you shall send” (v. 13), God gives him an interesting answer: that he, God, has chosen him to be His messenger, and that even if there is a certain arbitrary element in this choice, He will be with him. (See on this Rambam’s Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.5; after Maimonides explains the preparations a person must undergo in preparing himself to be a prophet, he concludes that “it is possible that the Shekhinah may rest upon him, and it is possible that it will not do so”). Any person with certain talents can become a messenger of God; at a certain stage, God will give him the needed power. These things are particularly true if he is motivated by a sense of justice and of inner conviction of the rightness of the goal. The classic example of this is Gideon who, despite being from “the poorest clan in Manasseh and the youngest in my father’s house” (Jdg 6:15) was so deeply pained and upset by the people’s suffering under the yoke of the Midianites, that the angel said to him, “Go with this power of yours” (v. 14)—that is, his anger in itself transformed him into a potential leader.

But, in the final analysis, what strikes me here, in light of our contemporary experience, is what is not found here: there is no talking here of the leader’s desire to himself be an “important person,” to receive personal benefit from his position, to be wealthy or a “celebrity.” Moses did not have a fancy office, nor a personal driver, nor a high salary; he did not enjoy first-class plane tickets or luxury suites in hotels. “Do not make them a spade with which to dig.” A true leader thinks exclusively, his entire life, only of the benefit of the people and its needs, and not of the greatness which he can derive from being a leader. Once there were such leaders in Israel, who lived modest lives and moved among the people—and I refer here, not to the distant past, to biblical antiquity, but to leaders within the memory of people living today. Would that we might again merit to have such leaders.


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