Rabbi Yona Simmons
Former Rosh Kollel in Poland
Currently a Programmer in Tel Aviv and Lectures in the Evenings in Modiin in Hebrew and English
Where are the true leaders of Bnei Yisrael?
We find ourselves in Parashat Shemot, at the beginning of the Egypt story once again, and once again, there is another Exodus Movie on our screens. I have not seen it, so I will not pass judgment on whether it is a worthwhile movie, but it is clear from the publicity that it is another attempt to portray the clash of two giants, Moshe and Pharaoh.
In this opportune political climate I wish to focus on the climactic scene where Moshe confronts Pharaoh the first time to deliver his message – “Let my people go!”. The Torah states that Moshe comes with Aharon, to meet with Pharaoh and present their demands. The Torah does not explain how Moshe actually gained an audience with the most powerful king in the world. Most adaptations assume that they already knew each other (the Torah hints that Moshe and Pharaoh grew up together, although the exact relationship between Batya, Moshe’s adopted Egyptian mother, and Pharoah at the time of the exodus is never clearly stated) so Moshe gained admittance as an old friend. Others seem to assume that Moshe is an important personage, so he can come and go as he pleases (this is definitely the cases later on). However there is a Midrash (Shmot Rabba 5:14) that explains it very differently, and gives us a special perspective on our situation.
The midrash starts with the verse in the Torah where Moshe and Aharon challenge Pharaoh:
They said to Pharaoh: “So said My L-rd,
G-d of Israel, send out my nation and they will be festive in my honor in the desert.”
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba Said: that particular day was a special day of gathering for Pharaoh, and all the kings came to honor him, and they brought crowns as tributes, and they each crowned him, for it was a day of worship, and they brought their gods with them. Once they had all crowned Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon were waiting outside of the doors of Pharaoh’s palace. His servants came in and said: “there are two old men waiting by the door”, so he replied: “let them in”.
They turn up to challenge Pharaoh on a special day where he receives many foreign guest who all come bearing gifts. Nobody knows who Moshe and Aharon are; they are just two old men, as Moshe is 80 and Aharon is 83 or 84. Most explanations have Moshe running away from Egypt at age 20, so he hasn’t been seen for sixty years, and no one remembers who he. They do not have any authority or protectsia, they do not even have any gifts of value.
Once they came in, he (Pharaoh) was looking at them to see if they would also crown him, or perhaps bring him some special writings, but they didn’t even greet him. So Pharaoh asked them: “Who are you?”
and they answered – “We are the messengers of the holy one blessed be he”.
“So what do you want here?”
They replied: “So said My L-rd (AD-NY – YKVK), send forth my nation …”
Moshe and Aharon reply with a very special gift, the previously unspoken name of Hashem. These four Hebrew letters [יקוק] which we read out loud as “A D O N A Y”, (literally – my master, which in itself is a reference to the fact that we are “slaves” to Hashem, and by inference, not to anyone else) have a deeper spiritual meaning than the name as we read it, but the two names are related as even Moshe confuses the two names (see chapter 5, verse 22 in the text and in Onkelus). This four letter name is actually a gift to Pharaoh. This gift is supposedly so valuable, that it is worthwhile for Pharaoh to send his slaves away in order to worship Hashem.
He got angry and he said: “Who is YKVK that I should heed his words to send out Israel? He didn’t even know to send me a gift (crown), rather you come merely with words. I don’t know YKVK, and additionally I will not send Israel forth.”
He continued: “Wait for me, until I check my books”, and he went off to check in his palace library, and checked out each and every nation and it’s gods, he saw the gods of Moav, the gods of Amon, and the gods of Tzidon, and finally he returned and said: “I searched for his name in all of my archives and did not find him!!”
Pharaoh states that since he has no evidence that this name exists in his libraries then it is meaningless, and he has no reason to listen to them.
If Moshe was someone important or famous, then Pharaoh would have at least listened to him and considered his requests. Had he recognized the name of Hashem that Moshe used, he would have shown some respect. However, Pharaoh says, since I was approached by a supposed nobody, in the name of some unrecognized Deity, I am just too busy dealing with all the other kings and dignitaries and ministers.
Today we all recognize Moshe as being a brilliant leader who was known and feared by many nations, but at one point he was just a strange old Shepherd from Midyan, with no leadership ambition, who espoused crazy ideas of freedom and religion.
This Midrash illustrates the largest flaw in politics. Too often we are quick to dismiss someone as being too young (or too old), as not being exciting enough, not being powerful enough and most importantly not being ambitious enough. From Moshe we learn that some of the best leaders are not born that way, and do not spend their whole life aspiring to be that way, but rather when the need presents itself, they step up to the plate. If Pharaoh had thought this way, if he had listened more closely to Moshe’s words, he would have saved a lot of trouble for his and our people.
We should have the wisdom to select the right leaders for our people, not because they are young or old, or famous or powerful. Rather because they are the right people to lead us to do what needs to be done today.
Rabbi Yona Daniel Simons, originally an IT consultant from Sydney, Australia, was Rosh Kollel in Warsaw, Poland from 2009-2012. Today he lives in Modiin, and works by day for a start up in Tel Aviv. In the evenings and on weekends, he teaches regular and casual shiurim to adults in Hebrew and English on all range of topics in Modiin and around Israel.