What it takes to be a Jewish leader

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation in University City and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, God asks Moses for the fourth time to, “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go,” to which Moses again  refuses God’s command.  Moses seems to be so reluctant to do God’s bidding as to be recalcitrant and rebellious.  Moses argues that the Jewish people will not listen to him, that he is a bad speaker, “heavy of mouth and tongue,” that Pharaoh will not heed him.  In fact, he refuses so many times that God becomes angry and, as if a parent frustrated with a child declares, “Who makes a mouth for humans?  Am I not God?”

Why then is Moses chosen to be the leader?  He seems to have none of the prerequisites for leadership.  He is not really of the people — having grown up in the palace of Pharaoh, can he really relate to the people and gain their trust?  By his own admission he is not articulate, and, for the coup de grâce, he has seemingly no interest in being the Jewish leader. He refuses to do so, has no courage to do the work, and has no vision of what could come to be. 

What is the Torah’s vision of good leadership?  Certainly no leader has it all — some things are ingrained within us and come naturally and other skills leaders must learn.  What does Moses have that the Torah deems so important as to make him the leader in the face of so many of his leadership challenges?  Why not make his brother Aaron the leader? He seems willing, does not have speaking problems and is available.

The Torah does not tell us much about our ancestors. It carefully chooses a few vignettes to record about our avot and imahot, our forefathers and foremothers.  We know very little about Moses before God calls him to leadership.  We know as a baby he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, nursed by his natural mother and grows up in Pharaoh’s palace.  Following this, the Torah tells us three terse stories in only a few verses and these seem to be what the Torah wants us to know about Moses just before he is chosen as leader.

Moses emerges from the palace a young man, intuitively knowing that the slaves are his brethren. Upon seeing an Egyptian task-master beating a Jewish slave, Moses jumps in, putting his own life in danger and kills the task-master.  

Immediately following this the Torah tells us that he saw two Jewish people fighting with each other and breaks up their fight, criticizing one of them.  They say, “Will you kill us like you did the Egyptian?”  Moses realizes his deed is known and runs away from Egypt to Midian.

There, he comes to a well where several Midianite shepherdesses are attempting to water their sheep but other Midianite shepherds are preventing them.  Moses at once steps in to help the shepherdesses.  

The lesson I think is clear.  More than being eloquent, more than being willing, more than being a visionary, the Torah’s view of qualification for leadership involves caring about justice, about individuals, and being willing, willy nilly, to step in and fight for those who are in need.  All other aspects of leadership can be learned along the way.  Which indeed Moses does.  

The Moses who was “not a man of words” begins the last book of the Torah with, “These are the words that Moses spoke…”