Thoughts to Ponder Number 41
22 Adar Sheini, 5760; March 29, 2000
Jewish Identity, Jewish Leadership and Rebellion

Leadership is one of the most difficult tasks for man to accomplish. It requires a rare combination of wisdom, courage, knowledge and experience. Very few people possess such qualities and even fewer know the art of combining them in a balanced way.

When looking into the personality of Moshe Rabenu we are confronted with an astonishing story how he became fit to what must be seen as the most challenging leadership role in man's history: to liberate a few million slaves from an anti-Semitic dictatorship and transform them into a nation of God with the task to teach all of mankind the highest level of ethics.

We might think that to be able to inspire a few million people to fear God one would need the best religious education available, and only the finest teachers would do. There would also be the need to be holy, and no doubt this would require a well-protected environment in which outside heretical ideologies do not penetrate and in which secularity plays no role. Only under such conditions could one develop into a man who one day would be great enough to have an encounter with God and receive His teachings. But in reading the story of Moshe, we are confronted with a different truth.

When Moshe for the first time leaves the palace of Pharaoh to visit his own enslaved brothers, he is confronted with the hard realities of life. Right in front of him an Egyptian strikes a Hebrew, possibly with the intention to kill him. Without any hesitation Moshe approaches the Egyptian, smites him and buries him in the ground.

Reflecting on the fact that Moshe has just left the home of Pharaoh in which he was raised for many years, we wonder what went through Moshe's mind. Whose side was he going to take? Raised in the world of Egyptian culture, receiving instruction from the elite of 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? On the other hand, Moshe must have had warm feelings towards the Jew, in spite of the fact that Jews were total foreigners to him. After all, "he came to see his brothers," and he was well aware of the fact that he was of Jewish stock however far removed he was from anything Jewish. Psychologists would no doubt raise the question whether Moshe was not confronted with the problem of "dual loyalties." How would he be able to decide?

A deeper reading of the verses may, however, give us some insight. "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 the condition of Moshe's mind: Moshe suddenly realized that he lived in two worlds. While his youth was spent in the world of all that Egypt had to offer as far as culture, knowledge, art and religion was concerned, his heart was somewhere else. Deep down there was a Jewish voice speaking to him making demands on him which opposed everything Egypt stood for. It is for this reason that "he looked this way and that way." He realized that he stood at a crossroads in his life, and he realized that "there was no man" i.e. that as long he did not make up his mind to which world he belonged he was no man of any character or strength. He therefore "smote the Egyptian" man within himself and buried him in the sand.

It is this decision which turned the world on its head and which steered mankind in a completely different direction. This decision, "taken within a moment" is possibly the most radical decision ever made in human history causing mankind, Jews and gentiles, to put God at the center of their life. But no doubt Moshe must have realized that by making an end to his ambivalent situation, he would be destroying all of his future. He would never be the new monarch of Egypt, he would surely turn the whole of Egypt against him, and he would no doubt become a wanderer and refugee without money and with no future.

It is only after this heroic act that God reveals Himself to Moshe at the Burning Bush. Only such a man can be a leader. Would Moshe have been educated in a warm Jewish environment with the best educators to serve him and protected from the influences of the outside world, he would not have been able to become what he was. It had to be a man who was raised in a foreign world which was committed to the idolization of a human being and in which morality played no role, that the most outstanding leader of God's nation had to emerge. To become a leader one must be a fighter, and no fight takes place without war. It was the "rebel within" which made Moshe into the leader of a nation whose function it is to fight and protest.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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