The Crown of Humility
This week begins a whole new book of Torah, entitled Shemot (names), like its first parasha. With the beginning of a new book, so much has changed in the lives of the Israelite people living in Egypt. Jacob's sons have all died. A new Pharaoh comes to power who does not know of Joseph and his family and fears the large number of Jewish people who have come to live in Egypt. The Jews are enslaved. And Moses is born. Some time goes by and Moses is asked by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery and into freedom. Here is the exchange:
Exodus 3:4, 9-12
4 God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am." ...and YHWH continued ...
9 "Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.
10 Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."
11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?"
12 And God said, "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain."
Your Exodus Navigator
1. Why does Moses express doubts about leading the people out of Egypt?
2. Is Moses' humility a sign of weakness or strength?
3. Moses has been asked to do a monumental task. How do you react when asked to lead? Are you afraid? Challenged? Hesitant? Fearless?
Jewish tradition has many ideas about why Moses hesitated when God asked him to lead the people. Some say that Moses did not want to hurt the feelings of his older brother, Aaron, by taking the job that could go to him. Others say that Moses was truly humble, and felt that he was not as capable to lead the Jewish people as another might be. Some historians reply that Moses' response to God was very typical of discourse of the time, politely declining and then accepting.
Elie Wiesel's Response
Elie Wiesel speculates that Moses refused God's request at first because "Moses was disappointed in his Jews." Moses was angry because no one had helped him defend the Jew who was being beaten by an Egyptian. And when Pharaoh had called for Moses' arrest, no Israelite came to his aid. Moses "had no wish to reopen a wound that had still not healed." (Messengers of God, Random House, New York, 1976, pp.188-190)
Your Midrash Navigator
1. What are the greatest difficulties in taking on a role of leadership, especially under such desperate circumstances?
2. What are the rewards of leadership?
3. How does one decide to become a leader?
4. What is the appropriate way to accept a leadership role?
5. How do we respond as leaders when our people make us angry?
Great leaders are aware of the challenges and difficulties that lie ahead of them. At times all leaders are filed with doubt about their abilities to lead their people. Sometimes great difficulties arise to challenge even the most able leader's skill and endurance. Moses, too, had doubts about his ability to lead his people. He also may have been angry with them, and questioned their worth as a people. And yet Moses does lead his people with dignity and courage.
Each of us is called on to lead other people, both as professionals, and as human beings. May we remember the words of Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Pirke Avot 1:14) May we approach our leadership with humility and great courage.
Prepared by Rabbi Andrea Lerner, Midwest Director of Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.