Leadership is one of the most difficult qualities for man to achieve. It requires a rare combination of wisdom, courage, knowledge and experience. Very few people possess all these qualities and even fewer know the art of combining them in a balanced way.
When looking into the personality of Moshe Rabeinu we learn an astonishing story of how he became capable of undertaking the apparently most challenging leadership role in human history: liberating a few million slaves from an anti-Semitic dictatorship and transforming them into a nation of God, with the additional mission of teaching mankind the highest level of ethics.
One might think that the ability to inspire a few million people to love God would necessitate the best religious education with only the finest teachers. Such a person should after all be holy, and that would require a well-protected environment into which outside heretical ideologies cannot penetrate and where secularism plays no role. Only under such conditions could a man evolve who would be great enough to experience an encounter with God, receive His teachings and inspire millions.
But in reading the story of Moshe, we are confronted with an altogether different truth.
When Moshe first leaves the palace of Pharaoh to visit his own enslaved brothers, he is struck by the hard realities of life. Right in front of him an Egyptian strikes a Hebrew, possibly with the intention of killing him. With no hesitation, Moshe smites the Egyptian and buries him in the ground.
This is most astonishing.
Why would Moshe take the side of the Israelite? Brought up in the world of Egyptian culture and instructed by elite Egyptian educators, possibly receiving private tutelage from Pharaoh himself to prepare him for the monarchy of Egypt in years to come, Moshe must have seen the Egyptian as a compatriot. This was a man of his own culture! Why take any action against him and defend the Israelite?
Still, it is clear that Moshe had warm feelings towards the Jew, despite the fact that Jews were total foreigners to him. This is made very evident by the text when it tells us, “He came to see his brothers.” Whether Moshe was actually told that he was of Jewish stock is not clear, but it is doubtful. His identifying with “his brothers” must therefore be the result of an inner voice that told him of his shared destiny with the Israelites. This must have put Moshe in a very difficult position. Psychologists would no doubt raise the question of dual loyalties. How was he going to be the next Pharaoh while feeling strong sympathy for the Jews, who were considered arch enemies of the Egyptian regime? What was he going to do to resolve this?
A deeper reading of one verse may give us some insight into this psychological quandary. After the Egyptian attacks the Israelite, we read:
“And he (Moshe) turned this way and that way, and he saw there was no man, and he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Shemoth 2:12)
As suggested by an unknown commentator, this may allude, albeit in an allegorical way, to Moshe’s situation: Moshe suddenly realized that he was living in two worlds. While his youth was spent in the world of Egyptian culture, as far as knowledge, art and religion were concerned his heart was elsewhere. Deep down he heard a Jewish voice demanding the opposite of everything Egypt stood for. It is for this reason that “he looked this way and that way.” Moshe realized that he was at a crossroads in his life and that “there was no man.” As long as he did not decide to which world he belonged, he lacked identity. He would have neither character nor strength unless he would make up his mind where he really belonged. Consequently, he made the decision there and then that he was to be a Jew and therefore he “smote the Egyptian man” within himself and (allegorically) buried him in the sand.
It is this decision that turned the world on its head, steering mankind in a completely different direction. This decision, taken in the blink of an eye, is possibly the most radical one ever made in human history. It brought a whole new world into existence. It was the first step towards the realization of Monotheism and ethical living becoming the greatest players in the history of mankind. When Moshe decided in favor of his authentic Jewishness, he laid the foundation for becoming not only the greatest leader of all time, but also the most godly of all men. He was able to speak with God and receive the Torah, the most profound religious ethical code, which gave birth to Judaism and later its offspring, Christianity, as well as Islam and even the secular ethical code by which many countries conduct their affairs to this day.
But Moshe must also have realized that by ending his ambivalent situation, he would be destroying his entire Egyptian future. Not only could he no longer aspire to become the new monarch of Egypt, but he would surely turn the whole of Egypt against him and become a wanderer and refugee with no money or future. And so he did. He became a rebel and ran for his life.
It is only after this heroic act that God revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, viewing him as a man suited to be the leader of the Jewish people and able to speak with Him on a daily basis. This is most surprising. Would God not have preferred for his people a leader who had been educated in a strong Jewish environment by the best religious educators and protected from the influences of the outside world? How would a man, who was raised in a foreign world committed to idol worship and absent of all morality, emerge as the most outstanding leader of God’s nation and the greatest religious teacher of all time?
“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm,” said Publilius Syrus. But it is resistance and the rebel within a person that creates the real leader. Leadership, borne of opposition, can only emerge in an environment at odds with the comfortable. The man who can swim against the current knows its strength and will therefore become stronger himself.
We owe almost all our inner strength not to those who have agreed but to those who have opposed us.
Had Moshe been educated in a strong religious environment with the best Jewish educators to guide and protect him from the influences of the outside world, he could never have become Moshe Rabeinu. Only in a foreign environment that challenged all Jewish moral criteria could a man like Moshe emerge.
While it is most important that we give our children and ourselves the best Jewish education possible, we will succeed in creating strong religious personalities only when we ensure that they are confronted with strong ideological opposition. Instead of creating a Jewish educational system that is self contained and ideologically self supporting, we should build yeshivoth and high schools in which students are constantly challenged in their beliefs and commitment, in order to give them the Jewish religious tools to explain and defend these beliefs. In fact, they should learn how to challenge the very teachings that oppose Jewish tradition. To make this happen, Jewish teachers should bring to the attention of their students critiques against the Jewish tradition and show them how these criticisms could be answered through the world of Jewish wisdom as found in the Talmud, Midrash and writings of Jewish philosophers. A reading of Spinoza’s Tractatus and Nietzsche’s critique of religion would do wonders in the Beth Midrash. John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” should be studied and debated along with the tractate of Sanhedrin. The teachings of Sartre should be challenged by Chassidic texts such as those of the Kotzker Rebbe and the Mei Hashiloach. This would sharpen the minds of students and show them the profundity of the Jewish tradition. They would learn how to challenge these non-Jewish works or in fact, through them, deepen some of the most important Jewish teachings. It would generate a new appreciation of what Judaism is all about; make it much more relevant and vital. Once in a while, a yeshiva should invite an apikores (heretic) and make him challenge the students’ beliefs. The debate that would follow would spark a whole new way of seeing what Judaism really has to offer. Instead of shunning such a proposal, it should be encouraged. Sure, this can only be done with mature and serious students and it needs to be carefully guided, but it would create strong religious Jews who know what they stand for, enjoy the challenge and move Judaism forward.
Judaism was born out of opposition, rebellion and protest. It overthrew and outlived mighty empires and gave the world a radically new understanding of itself. Judaism has nothing to fear. It has prevailed over all those who critiqued it but it has also learned much about itself by listening to opposing voices. Through these voices, it has been able to sharpen its own claims and if necessary change its mind when the inadequacy of these claims has become clear. Only in this way will it continue to play a central role in the future of mankind.
We need new religious leaders, but they will only emerge when those we have today stop fearing any and every challenge to Judaism. It is easy to be brave from a safe distance but that does not create great leaders. Judaism was built with courage. Let us overcome fear and behold its wonder. Let Judaism be challenged; it will only improve.
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”