This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Debbie Harris
Shemot is the first sedra of the book of Exodus and is basically Moses’ back-story. If the bible was a film this is the bit where they do all the flash backs to show you how the main character got to be where he is today. So we have the Pharaoh ordering the killing of male babies, Yocheved putting her baby in a basket in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter saving the baby and Moses growing up in the Egyptian court. Later Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, kills the Egyptian and has to flee.
Later still God appears to Moses in a burning bush and instructs him to go to Pharaoh to demand let my people go. I think that Moses’ reaction is very interesting:
“Who am I,” objects Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God says all will be fine as God will be with him. But Moses is not satisfied so God gives him three tricks to help persuade everyone that he has God on his side – his staff turns into a snake, his hand becomes covered with leprosy and is then healed and he’ll be able to turn the water of the Nile into blood. But Moses still protests saying that he is not good with words at which point God gets rather angry and says that Aaron can be his spokesman and stop making a fuss – or words to that effect!
In this day and age we don’t seem to have this level of reluctance or humility amongst our leaders. Instead our potential leaders have to constantly put themselves forward on TV, in newspapers, on social media or in election materials trying to explain why they would make a great leader, how wonderful they are and how terrible the other guy is. It seems that matters of extreme complexity and importance like Brexit or how to ensure fair treatment in the NHS have to be covered in brief, inane sound bites or negative campaigning. And this is perhaps part of the reason why so many people distrust our leaders and the establishment and vote instead for populist candidates and policies.
I read an interesting article by Jonathan Sacks on this Sedra. He comments that often in the Torah the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all.
The heroes of the Bible are not, he says, like the supernatural figures from Greek or Roman myths. They are not people determined from an early age to achieve fame. They did not go to Eton or Oxford. They were not born to rule. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah all reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – and they did it.
Jonathan Sacks also considers Moses’ question of Who Am I? as an issue of identity. On the one hand Moses is a prince of Egypt who grew up in the royal palace. But on the other hand he is a Midianite shepherd. He has to leave Egypt, make his home in Midian, spend most of his adult life there and marry Zipporah, a Midianite woman. So as well as feeling unworthy of leadership he perhaps does not feel much connection to the Israelites. He may have been Jewish by birth, but he had not grown up as a Jew. What was happening to the Hebrew slaves wasn’t his experience or his problem.
Rabbi Sacks suggest that the real clue to Moses ultimately taking on the challenge of the leadership of the Jews lies earlier in his life just before he kills the Egyptian when Moses is said to see the ‘hard labour’ of the Hebrews. Moses sees the suffering and identified with the sufferer and could not walk away. In Jonathan Sacks’ words:
‘There are Jews who believe and those who don’t. There are Jews who practise and those who don’t. But there are few Jews indeed who, when their people are suffering, can walk away saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’
In my view I would hope that as Jews, and in considering who would make a good leader, this would be broadened to cover all peoples not just our people. We should be conscious of the suffering of others whether they are our people or not and we should do what we can to help. We should try to choose leaders who we believe might be able to make a difference to those who are suffering or who might help those who are unwell, disabled, vulnerable or perhaps just in need of a good education or a reasonable job whether they are our people or not.
In another article by Jonathan Sacks he considers the fact that, as for most leaders, Moses does not get there on his own and points to six other heroes without whom Moses would not be in a position to lead anything. Interestingly these are all women.
This reminded me of a scene in Alan Bennett’s fantastic play The History Boys.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it on the stage but have seen the film several times. In case you don’t know it, the play is set in a grammar school in Sheffield in the early 1980s and focuses on a group of sixth formers who are trying to get into Oxbridge to do history. I rather identify with this as I was in sixth form at a grammar school in the early 1980s doing History – though in Essex rather than Sheffield. In the play the boys are having interview practice and the one female history teacher, played brilliantly by Frances de la Tour in the film, raises the possibility that one of the dons interviewing them might actually be female and she comments on the fact that history seems to be told entirely from a male perspective. She says:
‘Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? Why do you think there are no women historians on TV? I’ll tell you why; because history is not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be, they never get around the conference table? In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers, then gracefully retired. History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind. With the bucket.’
The women in Moses’ formative years may not have had a bucket, but most of them didn’t have a glamorous life. First, of course is his mother is Yocheved, who had the courage to have a child despite the risk that he might be killed, then hid him for three months, and then devised a plan to give him a chance of being rescued.
The second woman was Miriam, who kept watch over the basket in the Nile and who approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that she find a Jewish nursemaid. Then we have the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. They apparently told Pharaoh that although they rushed to assist at births, the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they had given birth before the midwives arrived. There are interpretations that suggest these midwives are in fact Yocheved and Miriam using different names, but in any event this seems to be the first instance of the idea that there are moral limits to power, that there are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that “I was only obeying orders.”
The fifth woman is Zipporah, Moses’ wife who, although she is the daughter of a Midianite priest, accompanies Moses on his mission to Pharaoh despite the fact that she had no reason to risk her life on this dangerous venture.
The final woman is Pharaoh’s daughter. She had the courage to rescue an Israelite child and bring it up as her own in the very palace where her father was plotting the destruction of the Israelite people. Rabbi Sacks asks:
‘Could we imagine a daughter of Hitler, or Eichmann, or Stalin, doing the same?’
There are many strong women in the Bible. They aren’t leaders of their people but they do seem to have some of the characteristics that we might associate with good leadership – such as courage, conscience and choosing to do the right thing even when that is dangerous or difficult.
There are lots of qualities that might make someone a great leader – perhaps integrity, intelligence, the ability to inspire others, problem solving skills, thinking big, being pragmatic, the ability to make and implement difficult decisions, being a good listener as well as a good orator and many more. But I think that having some of Moses’ humility and courage and even a touch of self-doubt might be helpful too.
I’d like to finish with what I consider to be an inspirational poem, which lists many attributes of great leadership – If by Rudyard Kipling. Although it is in some ways a poem of its time, reflecting Victorian attitudes towards men and military campaigns, I hope that Kipling will forgive me for taking out one verse and slightly changing the last line to emphasize what I think are qualities which are important to the characters in this week’s Sedra and are vital for great leaders –
and perhaps for all of us.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And a great leader – you can become!