Rav Asher Sabag
Former Shaliach in Chicago (2003-4)
In Parshat Shmot, we are introduced to Moshe Rabbenu – Am Yisrael’s first and foremost leader. Much has been written about Moshe’s leadership qualities, but I would like to focus on a specific point, which can teach us about public and group leadership.
The first time that HaKadosh Baruch Hu reveals Himself to Moshe and says, “and take My people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt,” (Shmot 3:10) was at the Burning Bush. Astonishingly, Moshe does not willingly accept HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s mission. Instead, Moshe responds with a series of reasons why he should not be the chosen leader. Finally, HaKadosh Baruch Hu gets angry at Moshe: “The wrath of Hashem was kindled against Moshe.” (Shmot 4:14) Thus, the incident draws to a close.
Yet, the bigger surprise is that HaKadosh Baruch Hu did not become angry earlier during Moshe’s litany of grievances. Moshe’s first objection is legitimate: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Shmot 3:11) In other words, Moshe questions his suitability for the task. Thus, HaKadosh Baruch Hu replies, “For I shall be with you.” (Shmot 3:12) Hashem assures Moshe that He will provide the necessary backup.
Initially, Moshe’s second complaint appears to be legitimate as well. He wonders how he will be able to prove that he is in fact speaking in the Name of: “The God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov.” (Shmot 3:7)
This time, HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides three answers:
- “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh” (“I Shall Be As I Shall Be”). (Shmot 3:14)
- “Hashem, the God of your forefathers, the God of Avraham … this is My Name forever, and this is My remembrance from generation to generation.” (Shmot 3:15)
- “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘Hashem, the God of your forefathers… I have surely remembered you and what is being done to you in Egypt.’” (Shmot 3:16)
The commentators address each answer and show how each one adds to the preceding one. However, I would like to raise a different issue.
After providing the three answers, HaKadosh Baruch Hu tells Moshe that the elders will listen to him: “And they will hearken to your voice.” (Shmot 3:18) HaKadosh Baruch Hu then informs Moshe that he will go together with the elders to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh will harden his heart, etc. But in the end, he will be forced to let them go, and they will even carry the best of Egypt with them as they leave.
And this is where the difficulty lies: At this point, Moshe seems to ask an improper question. Moreover, he does so as one establishing a fact – rather than as one asking an honest question: “But they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, and they will say, ‘Hashem did not appear to you.’” (Shmot 4:1)
It is at this juncture that I would have expected HaKadosh Baruch Hu to get angry at Moshe for ostensibly arguing with HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s statement that the elders will listen. Instead, HaKadosh Baruch Hu reiterates his statement and gives Moshe three signs.
Of course, we must also wonder how Moshe dares to speak in this way and refute Hashem’s statement.
Actually, Chazal do see the first sign – the staff which is transformed into a snake – as a criticism of Moshe. But Moshe is not censured for contradicting HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Rather, the snake serves a reprimand for Moshe speaking lashon harah about Am Yisrael.
Moshe’s third complaint concerns the technical problem with his confronting Pharaoh: “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Shmot 4:10)
In turn, Hashem assures Moshe that He will assist him in this regard. Only when Moshe says: “Please… send through whomever You would send,” (Shmot 4:13) does HaKadosh Baruch Hu finally display anger towards Moshe.
Allow me to humbly suggest that Moshe is teaching us an important lesson about leadership. Anyone who has served in a leadership position – even over a small group – and has had to mediate between the group and a higher authority has encountered situations where individual underlings approach the leader with certain problems. Occasionally, the specific problem may be negligible in the eyes of the leader and the rest of the group. However, since the individual complainer is either more particular or on a lower level, he may ask the leader to speak to the higher authority on his behalf. How easy is it for the leader to brush aside the complaint and show disdain for the grievance and, thus, the complainer himself!
But Moshe Rabbenu is teaching us that a leader must rise above this tendency. Although Hashem assures Moshe that: “They will hearken to your voice,” (Shmot 3:18)
HaKadosh Baruch Hu is referring to the elders. Presumably, the majority of Am Yisrael will eventually follow the elders, but that is insufficient for Moshe. He is concerned about the minority who will not believe him and therefore demands stronger proof for their sake. He is sensitive to the minority’s needs, regardless of the fact that the majority is likely to scorn the smaller group and call them names such as “heretics”. Moshe refuses to neglect the minority and even risks incurring Hashem’s wrath in order to advance their concerns.
Thus, when he says: “But they will not believe me,” (Shemot 4:1) Moshe is referring to this minority. Hence, HaKadosh Baruch Hu answers lovingly and provides Moshe with the three signs.
Yet, when Moshe tries to shake off the entire mission and says, “Send through whomever You would send,” (Shemot 4:13) HaKadosh Baruch Hu does get angry. Hashem had patiently responded to all of Moshe’s protests and had shown him that he was the chosen one and that Hashem would be with him. Therefore, Moshe’s attempt at refusing the mission is illegitimate. He must accept his inborn leadership role.
Moshe displays true leadership by not just addressing the needs of his stronger charges. In this case, strength does not mean physical strength. Moshe concerns himself with the spiritually weaker members of Am Yisrael – even if they do not comprise a majority of the nation. In fact, throughout Am Yisrael’s sojourn in the desert, Moshe worries about everyone. Therefore, Chazal note that he was equivalent to shishim ribo Yisrael (loosely, the entire nation), because he knew how to speak to each person on his own level.
We must learn from Moshe and remember to try and understand the minority. A true leader must represent all his charges, even if he does not agree with all of their claims. As their appointed spokesman, he must ensure that their voices are heard.