Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Unlikely Leader

“Jewish leadership” is currently very much in vogue. On university campuses and in JCCs around the country, seminars and “fellowships” are sprouting up that will train you in the art of being a “Jewish leader.” I doubt two Jews in America could even agree on the definition of a “Jewish leader,” but regardless, a case could be made that that signing up for one of these courses automatically disqualifies you. If Moshe is any guide, the ideal Jewish leader is someone who has no interest in being one. However, to be honest, this kind of cynicism is unwarranted. As we shall see, Moshe’s disinterest in Jewish leadership is not something we should aspire to.

It took God a lot of work at the Burning Bush to convince Moshe to go to Egypt and redeem the Jews. In the end, God succeeds and Moshe takes the job. Moshe was riding his donkey, headed for Egypt, when God appeared with one final message.

Tell Pharaoh, “God says, ‘Israel is My firstborn son. Send out My son so he can serve Me. For if you refuse to send him, I will kill your firstborn son.’”


“My firstborn son” – Here God signed on the sale of the birthright that Yaakov purchased from Eisav (cf. Bereishit 25:33).

Rashi ad loc.; Midrash Rabba 63:14

After all these years, nay, centuries, it is only now that God validates the sale of the birthright?! What has taken so long? And what is it about Moshe’s journey to Egypt that generates this most critical divine act of signing on the sale? This is a difficult Midrash. In order to understand it, we need to take a small step back.

In the book of Bereishit, the Torah reveals next to nothing about the early lives of Noach and Avraham. The wisdom of God’s choice is borne out by their successes, but we are not told why they were chosen in the first place. When it comes to Moshe, however, things are different. The Torah provides a full bio of his early life and it is quite impressive. Here’s a synopsis.

Moshe was born at a bad time. The Jews were enslaved and oppressed, and by law, all newborn boys had to be thrown in the Nile. When his parents couldn’t hide him anymore, they put him in a basket and set it afloat in the reeds by the riverbank. Discovered by none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter, she takes the baby out of the river, names him “Moshe,” and adopts him.

Moshe grows up. One day, going out to check on his brethren, Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. Thinking that no one is watching, Moshe kills the Egyptian and hides the body. The next day, Moshe goes out again. Seeing two Jews fighting, he confronts them. “Why do you hit your friend?” he asks. “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” came the reply. “Do you intend to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?” The word was out! The Jews had reported on Moshe and now he is wanted for murder. Moshe flees the country.

Arriving in Midian, Moshe sees the local shepherds abusing some girls at a watering hole. He intercedes, saves the maidens and draws water for their sheep. The girls’ father invites him for dinner and Moshe ends up marrying Tzippora and working as a shepherd for his father-in-law. Guiding his flock one day in the desert, he sees a burning bush. God has come to ask him to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews.

There we have it. Moshe is a man who will kill to defend his brethren. Even as an immigrant, he is not afraid to challenge the locals and fight for what is just and right. God chose a bona fide hero.

Moshe may have a great résumé, but if you think about it, he is an unlikely candidate for a savior of the Jews. First of all, he grew up in an Egyptian home, not a Jewish one. Second, Moshe was burned once helping the Jews. He saved a Jew, killing an Egyptian at great personal risk, only to have Jews tattle on him to the authorities (cf. Rashi to 2:15). Thirdly, his last experience with the Jews was watching some violent infighting and then, when he tried to intervene, they told him off. Moreover, Moshe is wanted in Egypt for murder. Today he is a happily married man; a citizen of Midian. He would have to be crazy to return to Egypt!

Nevertheless, at the Burning Bush, God asks him to go. In light of the above, Moshe’s response is not surprising.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?

Shemot 3:11

Moshe is making two points here. The first is easy enough to understand; Moshe is a humble man who has no idea why he is being chosen for this momentous task. But what is the meaning of Moshe’s second question? Rashi explains.
“And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” – [In other words,] even if I am up to the task, why do the Jews merit a miraculous redemption from Egypt?
That’s a negative attitude, but keeping Moshe’s personal history in mind, it is understandable. Long ago, when he saw Jew fight against Jew, Moshe came to know why the Jews were enslaved.

“Indeed, the matter is known!”


“Now I know the answer [to the question] I have long wondered about. What sin did the Jews commit that they alone from among all the seventy nations are subjected to slave labor? But now I see that they deserve it.”

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 10

Moshe’s negativity does not end there. God and Moshe go through several volleys at the Bush; Moshe simply does not want the job. At one point, he says this:

They won’t believe me… they’ll say, “God never appeared to you!”


Not only does Moshe consider the Jews unworthy of redemption, he accuses them of cynicism as well. The mocking words, “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” still burn in his ears. But here God drew the line:

God said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied.
“Throw it on the ground.”
He threw it on the ground and it turned into a snake.


[God] was alluding to the fact that [Moshe] had just spoken Lashon Hara about the Jews. He had taken up the profession of the snake.

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 23

Despite all his misgivings, Moshe takes the job. Not because he is promised riches or land and not because God forces him to do it. Simply because the Jews are his brothers.

This provides another stark contrast with Noach and Avraham. When God told Noach to build an ark, Noach asked no questions. When God told Avraham to sacrifice his son, Avraham says, “Hineini,” i.e., “Here I am, ready to do your bidding.” But when God instructs Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews, a discussion ensues. Apparently, God does not want to order Moshe to do it; God wants Moshe to want to do it. And when, in the end, Moshe mounts his donkey and heads for Egypt, God signs on Yaakov’s purchase of the birthright and declares the Jews His “firstborn.” Why?

Because Moshe does not allow his experience with a few bad apples to extinguish his feelings for the Jewish Nation. Ultimately it is Moshe’s deep-seated love and respect for the Jews that drives him to take on the responsibilities of leadership. And if a Jewish child who was raised by Egyptians can still love his brethren, if one who was betrayed and insulted by his own people still cares, if a man could leave the comforts of home to return to a land where he is wanted for murder in order to perform a mitzvah, if, after all he had been through, Moshe was still so authentically Jewish, then the sale of the birthright was indeed a success. For in Moshe we have living proof that Yaakov’s descendants are the carriers of the exalted Abrahamic gene.

This is why God chose Moshe, and this is why God needed Moshe to willingly embrace the mission. There may have been other candidates. But there was no one else who could prove the existence of the pintele yid.


  1. Great Stuff

  2. In a previous post, I suggested that the new photo for the blog was a terrific metaphor, as the insights provided in your parsha commentary often bring into sharp focus ideas that would otherwise remain blurry. This week offers a perfect example:

    An article in the Jerusalem Post a few days ago highlighted data showing that aliyah to Israel is at a 20 year low.

    The talkback comments offered a variety of reasons for the decline. Many suggested it was due to the increased secularization of Israeli society; some thought it was because of the ineptness and corruption of the Israeli government; others blamed it on the “rude, arrogant, and obnoxious” demeanor of the Israelis themselves. Such negative and cynical descriptions might leave one confused as to why one should remain committed to such a people.

    Your analysis of what motivated Moshe gives a clear answer: the vision of the Jewish Nation provided by Ya’akov Avinu transcends any “few bad apples” living in any one snapshot in time. Yisrael demands our committment because it is a vision of the highest potential for human development spanning the full scope of history from the dawn of Creation until the End of Days, with all the ups and downs that such a process entails.

  3. Great thoughts Barry!

  4. Barry-
    My thoughts exactly. Sometimes the parsha is so relevant it hurts.

    ps. It's nice to know someone out there gets it.

  5. How interesting it is that Va'eira begins with the transformation of Moshe's mission from volunteer work to a command (cf. 6:13; 7:2,6). Although God initially wanted Moshe to choose to take the job, later it had to become a mitzvah, a command. Apparently, when it came time for the Exodus, Moshe could not be a free agent.