Friday, January 5, 2018

Parashat Shemot - Leadership

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemot, the first of the book of Exodus. It chronicles a lot of the beginning of the Exodus story, from the rise of a Pharoah who remembers not what Joseph did for Egypt, to the birth of Moses, to his escape into Midian after killing an Egyptian slavemaster, to the burning bush and his triumphant return to Egypt to “Let [his] people go”, and many other details and strange sidestories in between.
For the last few weeks, I have been a part of a team of teachers at the Jewish day school in which I teach to structure an interdisciplinary theme to weave throughout the middle school curricula, started next year and building for at least the next three years. After mapping out the curricula we currently have, at least from the teachers and subjects participating on this team, we settled on reinforcing themes of Leadership across disciplines and throughout the school year. At our most recent meeting this week, we were brainstorming on what exactly we mean by leadership or which leadership qualities we want the students to learn and emulate. During this brainstorming session, someone threw out the name of Moses as an example.
And of course, he is; I am not disparaging that contribution to the brainstorming. But why? What about Moses is what we want to have our younger generations learn from? Each of the Patriarchs, as well as Joseph and some of his brothers, also surely showed leadership qualities. The matriarchs have lessons to teach us to be strong and empowered leaders too. What is it about Moses’s leadership in his role that allows us still to this day to uphold him as the paragon of good leadership?
No really, I’m asking you. Take a moment to talk amongst yourselves. Comment below your thoughts on the matter.
    You good? Have some ideas of your own on the matter? You shared them with me yet? Good. Now, try this on for size. A Midrash from Exodus Rabbah shares precisely why and how God chose Moses for his special role for the Jewish people. It suggests that it was Moses’s abilities as a shepherd that drew God’s attention, and it draws this parallel also with King David, who was also a good shepherd and devoted farm-boy before being anointed king. The Torah tells us that after Moses ran away from Egypt, he found refuge in the Midianite camps, tending to his father-in-law, Jethro’s, sheep. The Midrash Rabbah invents a story that one day while tending these sheep, one lamb ran off. Moses chased it until he found it resting in a shady area drinking some water. From this, Moses caringly murmurs to the lamb the way one might talk to their beloved pet that he sees now that the lamb ran off because it was so tired and thirsty, and after the lamb drinks up, Moses carries the lamb on his shoulders back to the rest of the flock.
    The Torah is unclear about whether Moses knew he was an Israelite before the revelation at the Burning Bush. It tells us the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her son figured out immediately upon drawing him out of the river that he was a Hebrew. It tells us one day he went out from his place of privilege and comfort to look upon the burdens of his brothers. But whether “his brothers” is his own understanding or the Torah narrator’s communication to us the reader is unclear. It throws some shadow onto his reaction to the oppression and violence he sees or his interference into the infighting between two slaves if his empathy for their plight is only because of how close to it he personally feels, as a fellow Hebrew.
    But when he gets to Midian and saves Midianite women he does not know from some cruel caravan travellers, we begin to see the depth of his caring for others, with whom he has no connection. He is not a woman or a Midianite, and he has never laid eyes on these women before. But he sees their suffering and moves to relieve it. So too with the sheep, not even human or subject to the same kind of abuse or cruelty, he recognizes the lamb’s struggles and rises to meet its needs. When God tells him through the burning bush that he must return to Egypt to confront Pharoah and free the Israelites, he first asks, “Who am I?” After relenting against his humilty and agreeing to be God’s sacred vessel on Earth, he still refuses to go immediately without first talking with his father-in-law, the owen of the sheep he is herding, and ensure that all loose ends of his current responsibilities are tied up before he leaves them behind to pursue new ones. These are signs of a strong leader.
    In later parashiyot, we will see more of Moses’s commanding side, his lessons in delegation, and other signs of greater depth and nuance to his leadership style, which will all be useful in teaching future generations how to be a good, moral, effective, and well-rounded leader. But what better place to start than with compassion and empathy, gratitude and responsibility, and humility and accountability?
    As we start our new Sefer of Torah, a new year in the Gregorian calendar, and embark forward in our own life journeys, let us all learn from and teach to our children the leadership qualities of Moses in this week’s Torah portion. This world could use a little more of use all caring for others, whether we feel related to their plight or not, and a shared sense of responsibility for one another. If we all reached out a little further and extended help to someone new, like Moses does, think how far reaching each small action could quickly become. Before you know it, we could liberate a whole new people out of their narrow places.
    May this be our blessing for 2018. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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