The Leadership Style of Moshe

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Shemot, initiates the second Book of the Torah, which tells the story of the enslavement of the Jewish People and their redemption. This happened because Hashem intervenes in human affairs to achieve His purposes. In addition, He designates certain people to carry out various aspects of the endeavor.

With regard to the Exodus of the Jews and their transition into the Chosen People, no human was more consequential than Moshe. Hashem wanted him to assume the leadership of the Jews in the struggle to obtain freedom from Pharaoh. Subsequently, he would lead the People in receiving and implementing the Torah. This is quite an astounding assignment for any individual. Ironically, Moshe was averse to the  position, and he resisted vociferously until he was coerced into taking it.

Once he accepted the mission, Moshe was absolutely dedicated to its success and the well-being of his people. As instructed, he engaged the leading sages and convinced them–with reasoning and demonstrations–that he was, indeed, an authentic prophet of Hashem and that the time of their liberation had come.

The next move was for his brother Aaron, himself and the Elders to appear before Pharaoh and present Hashem’s demand that he let them journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to G-d. The Torah only records that Moshe and Aaron proceeded to confront Pharaoh but what about the Elders? The Rabbis assert that they accompanied the two leaders at the outset of their trip to the King but slipped away, one by one, as they got closer to the palace.

Obviously, it took a great deal of courage to stand before Pharaoh and state their demand, and we can now understand why only Moshe and his brother were fit for this task. Time and again, Moshe put his life on the line in fulfilling the tasks of his role, not only in defiance of Pharaoh but in holding firm against the complaints of his fellow Jews, as well. (Concerning whom Moshe said, “Just a bit more, and they will stone me.”)

Moshe’s initial encounter with the Egyptian Ruler went very badly. At that point, Pharaoh was smug and arrogant and seemingly fearless. He bragged, “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice. I do not know Hashem and, additionally, I will not send out Israel. (Shemot 5:2)” [Chutzpah!]

But this was not enough. Apparently, Pharaoh had some concern about the possible influence of Moshe on his downtrodden slaves, so he felt he had to teach them a lesson. He increased their workload by withholding straw and demanding that they provide the same daily quota of bricks as before, a task which seemed impossible.

The Jews were crushed and took out their anger on Moshe. “They (the foremen of the Jews) encountered Moshe and Aaron standing opposite them as they left Pharaoh’s presence. They said to them, ‘May Hashem look upon you and judge, for you have made our very scent abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his servants, to place a sword in their hands to murder us. (Shemot 5:20-21)’”

This turn of events impacted Moshe in a very painful way, and he “returned” to Hashem and said, “My Lord why have You harmed this people, why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he harmed this people, but You did not rescue Your people.” Hashem responded, “Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for through a strong hand will he send them out, and through a strong hand will he drive them from his land. (Shemot 5:21,22-6:1)”

This exchange between Moshe and the Creator is one of the most baffling dialogues in the entire Torah. Especially unexpected are the harsh words Moshe addressed to Hashem, seemingly complaining about the manner in which He was handling the situation. Didn’t Moshe have absolute faith that Hashem knew what was best and that He would carry out the liberation of the Jews in the proper time and manner? How are we to understand his harsh complaint against Hashem?

The great Biblical commentator Ibn Ezra explains that Moshe was perplexed by the sudden setback; because while he knew that it would take time for Egypt to be crushed, he nevertheless expected that once he appeared before Pharaoh things would begin to improve and certainly would not get any worse. Yet, the situation of the Jews had deteriorated because of his demand to Pharaoh and this  almost completely demolished his standing with the  Jewish people.

I would like to suggest another factor which enables us to understand the reaction of Moshe to this unanticipated negative development. The Torah describes that Moshe was given his name by the compassionate daughter of Pharaoh, who had rescued him from the River. “She called his name Moshe, as she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.’ (Shemot 2:10)”

At first glance, this name merely recounts an occurrence and does not seem to have great significance. However, the Sforno explains; “And she called his name Moshe. He who rescues and draws forth others from trouble (and danger).”

The name of a person can have a great impact in forging his personality. Pharaoh’s daughter wanted Moshe to internalize the principle of intervening against oppression and rescuing the lives of innocents in danger, as this quality was responsible for his very survival. As Rabbi Raphael Pelcowitz Z”L explains in his notes on the Sforno, “…he was called by a name reflecting his eventual role as a rescuer, a role played by Moshe over a prolonged period…”

Indeed, Moshe displayed great courage and determination to get involved on behalf of victims of oppression. When he saw the Egyptian beating the Jewish slave, he took immediate action and slew the culprit. When he encountered two Jews fighting, he confronted the aggressor “And said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’” Because of his bold and righteous actions, Moshe had to escape for his life, but that did not seem to deter him. For when he witnessed the daughters of Yitro being driven away by the shepherds, “Moshe got up and saved them and watered their sheep.”

Moshe was the kind of person who took hasty action to correct an evil in progress and obtain quick results. He therefore expected that when Hashem intervened to rescue the Jews, there would be some beneficial results right away, even though the entire process would take some time. Moshe had not yet mastered the challenge of the Derech Arucha (the extended path) in which there is a long and slow process spanning many centuries until all is ready for the ultimate redemption. May it happen speedily and in our time.

Shabbat Shalom.