Va’era

Shemot Comments Off 22

ordinary people, extraordinary achievements

This week’s Torah reading begins with Moses in a state of depression. All his efforts to save the children of Israel from slavery have met with no success. To the contrary, he has only made the situation worse and the Israelites’ hardships have increased. Do not worry, God reassures him, things are about to change. The story of the exodus is about to begin.

But at that very moment there is a surprising interruption in the narrative…

Just as the real story of the exodus is about to begin, the Bible narrative breaks off and, in a lengthy interruption, lists the lineage of Moses and Aaron. This family history goes back to the time of their great grandfather Levi and includes all Moses’ and Aaron’s uncles and cousins, descended from Levi’s brothers Reuven and Levi. Only after this family history is recounted does the Bible return to our story, noting that “This is the Aaron and Moses, who the Lord told to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt.”

Why is this family history necessary? And why, of all places, should it come here, at the climax of the exodus story?

The great 19th century rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this interruption is a narrative device. Just before Moses and Aaron are about to demonstrate their remarkable success in changing the course of history the Bible wants to convey two important lessons about leadership.

The first is the humanity of our greatest leaders. From earliest times, remarks Hirsch, there has been a tendency to regard great leaders as godly, or being invested with special powers. Not so the leaders of Israel.  As their human lineage proves, Moses and Aaron were ordinary humans; like all of us they were born to parents, and had siblings and cousins.

Unlike the great prophets in some other religions, says Hirsch, “Moses was born a man, remained a man and is to remain a man”.  This lesson, of the ordinary human nature of our greatest heroes, carries a powerful message – the potential for true leadership is not just restricted to a few, but rests in all of us.

At the same time, notes Hirsch, when our leaders act in history, they are not acting alone. The qualities of leadership are not developed in a single generation, but develop over time as values and qualities are handed down from parent to child. Moses and Aaron were human leaders, but the qualities they brought to their leadership dated back to the generations that preceded them, and the lessons they drew from their predecessors.

These two ideas – the humanity of our leaders and the importance of the values we inherit, are poignantly hinted at the moment of Moses’ birth. The Bible tells us:

“And a man from the house of Levi went and took a woman from the house of Levi, and she conceived and had a son.”

The Biblical narrative goes out of its way to preserve the anonymity of the characters: A nameless man and a nameless woman give birth to a nameless child. It could be anyone; it could indeed be us. But at the same time, the lineage of our hero is important. The Bible tells us the tribe of both Moses’ mother and father, to remind us that every one of us is heir to the talents, values and qualities of our ancestors.
These lessons of leadership, arising from the pages of the Bible, rise too from the pages of Israeli history. In conditions of tragedy and despair, a generation of founding leaders arose who leadership had thrust upon them. These were ordinary individuals, who rose to the challenges of the moment and achieved extraordinary things. But in doing so, they were not alone. They, like Moses and Aaron before them, and like those who follow them, drew strength and inspiration from the generations that preceded them.

In others’ words

Colonel Ilan Ramon on leadership:
“I believe, as I have said many times, that our country is comprised of the best people, with phenomenal abilities, and all we are missing is the correct leadership to raise Israelis to the skies! Mr. President, if it pleases you, please pass on my deep appreciation to the citizens of Israel and tell them that I am proud to be their first representative in space.”

Email sent by Col. Ilan Ramon to President Moshe Katzav Space Shuttle Columbia, 12th day in space.

On a lighter note

A young Israeli student was interviewing for a place at the Hebrew University.
“Tell me”, asked the interviewer. “Would you say you were a leader or a follower?”
“Truthfully”, answered the student, “I’d have to say I’m a follower”. “Thank heavens for that” said the interviewer. “All I’ve had today is 200 leaders!”

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