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Parashat Shemot: Moshe as a Leader

by Michael Goldstein | Published on January 1, 2007

The ques­tion of Jewish lead­er­ship is a chal­lenging one. What makes a great Jewish leader? Which skill is most impor­tant? Is it charisma? Good looks? Public speaking skills? Intelligence? Some combi­na­tion of these skills? There seem to be many elements that contribute to successful lead­er­ship, not just one.

Nonetheless, let us explore which element is perhaps most crit­ical for the success of a leader. For the answer to this ques­tion we’ll look at the life of arguably the greatest leader to ever guide the Jewish People: Moshe. What made Moshe great? Which skill or char­ac­ter­istic distin­guished him as the great shep­herd of Klal Yisrael?

To under­stand Moshe, it’s impor­tant to first under­stand his back­ground and upbringing. Moshe was raised in the house of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, and Egypt was not known for its morality. The Midrash tells us that Egypt was engaged in the most base and immoral sexual behav­iour, aside from their eager­ness to enslave and murder. Egypt was thor­oughly corrupt, and Egypt was the envi­ron­ment in which Moshe was raised. Nonetheless, it was Moshe who God chose to lead His people, to repre­sent Him in front of Pharaoh, and to converse with in the greatest acts of prophecy ever. So what did God see in him?

Moreover, the first three episodes recorded by the Torah of Moshe’s adult life share an unusual theme: in all three cases, Moshe is getting into fights. The first has Moshe attacking, and killing, an Egyptian taskmaster; the second has him confronting a Jewish slave who was attacking another; and the third has him fending off Midianite shep­herds in defense of the daugh­ters of Yisro. Why is Moshe portrayed here in such a violent light? Why are these episodes our first impres­sions of this great leader? Is the Torah trying to teach us a lesson about lead­er­ship? Why are we given these episodes as the basis for our first impres­sions of Moshe?

Perhaps the answer to these ques­tions is as follows: perhaps Moshe’s great­ness lay in the fact that even though his personal inter­ests were not aligned with helping others in the way that he did, he helped them nonethe­less. He cared, and he shouldn’t have. He cared about the welfare of a Jewish slave, and he shouldn’t have. He cared about the comfort of some Midianite girls, and he shouldn’t have. Why should he have cared? He was a prince. He was living in comfort. He had every desire fulfilled. Why should he have cared about these strangers he was passing in the street? Why should he have cared so much to have committed a capital crime, have a death warrant put on his head and force himself into exile? He cared, and he shouldn’t have. That’s Moshe’s great­ness. It was because of his priv­i­leged upbringing and his distance from his Jewish brethren that his great­ness was proven. Why did he help them? Not because he was in danger. Not because of his bitter­ness against the Egyptians. He helped them because he was sensi­tive to the pain of every human being. Their pain was his pain, and he was willing to do anything and sacri­fice anything to bring them comfort. God looked at this kid and said, “He’s my man.” That’s why he was chosen to lead the Jewish People. Not because he was mystic; not because he was well spoken; not because he was a saint or a scholar. Because he cared.

The partic­i­pants in the Encounter Tour came from diverse back­grounds and had diverse skill sets. Some were intro­verts. Some were extro­verts. Some were orga­nizers. Some were acad­e­mics. Some were good looking. Some were, well, not as good looking. But what united all of the partic­i­pants was one simple fact: they all cared, and they shouldn’t have. They all cared about the welfare of a people who were sepa­rated from them by many barriers: cultural, emotional, and phys­ical. They all cared about a people to whom they had no respon­si­bil­i­ties and no connec­tion. There was no incen­tive for these partic­i­pants to be there other than the fact that they cared. There was no reason for these partic­i­pants to be there other than the fact that there were human beings who were suffering, and they felt that pain. They cared, and they shouldn’t have. These are the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, and I’m both comforted to know that they’re in my corner and excited to see which great things they are going to accom­plish for the Jewish People.

Rabbi Michael Goldstein received rabbinical ordi­na­tion from Yeshiva University and currently serves as Director of Outreach for Jewish Education through Torah (JET) of Ottawa. Rabbi Goldstein formerly spent two years as an educator at NCSY’s Torah High in Toronto, Canada.

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