Sh’mot – Humble, Honest and Caring
A young businessman just opened a new office of which he was very proud. Sitting down in his new, plush office chair behind his desk he noticed a man walking into the office. He immediately picked up the phone and began talking as though he was on an important business call. He threw out large figures of money and pretended to be closing a deal of great importance. The visitor stood respectfully in the entrance until the phone was hung up. The young business man, satisfied that he had made an impression upon the visitor, turned and asked how he can help. “I’ve come to connect your phone lines,” was his response.
What does it take to make a boss? What are the qualities that are necessary in leadership? In this week’s Parsha we find the makings of a true leader in Moses.
A shepherd tends to his flock on the hillsides, leading them to fresh areas where they can forage for greens to eat and nourish themselves. Inevitably a shepherd spends most of his day outside of the circles of civilization, away from watching eyes. There are no security cameras monitoring the shepherd. Even animal rights activists have not set up a watch on shepherds to determine the sheep are being treated well. What happens in the pasture stays in the pasture.
Herding a flock is unique in that it is out of public sight. A shepherd’s work requires little oversight because so long as the sheep are well fed and protected little else is important. However, a shepherd does encounter challenges. Not all land is open for grazing. Some lands are owned by other people and the sheep of others may not graze in that area. We find this to be the object of quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and those of Lot, causing them to part ways. The Midrash relates that Abraham’s shepherds would not allow their flocks to graze from land owned by others while Lot’s shepherds did not prevent their sheep from doing so. Moses led his sheep far into the wilderness (Exodus 3:1), ensuring they grazed only on land that had no owner. He demonstrated integrity of character, not stealing from others even while no one was watching and even when no one would ever know the difference.
Another quality of Moses is illustrated earlier in his lifetime. Moses grew up in the palace, with a silver spoon in his mouth. We don’t know any details of his upbringing but he was clearly treated to all the privileges of royalty. All the conditions were present for becoming hardened to the suffering of those around him. He had every excuse to ignore the plight of the lower class of society, as a member of aristocracy. The slaves of Egypt were an important element in Egypt’s economy, as were the slaves in all of the ancient empires. It was not considered in that society immoral to enslave other people. ‘Might makes right’ was the prevailing model for ownership and superiority. The fact that the Pharaoh had other motives in enslaving the Hebrews should not have concerned Moses and he had no reason to even know about other motives.
Despite all this, the verse relates that: “…Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man… so he struck down the Egyptian man and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)
Moses found out his biological ancestry and sought out his brethren. He could not stand by idly as members of his kin were being bullied and persecuted. He acted, demonstrating loyalty to family as well as leadership in taking action. There is clearly more to this story than the words of the verse express. Moses would not take such extreme action and kill another man without grounds for it. But he certainly would not have been a bystander regardless. All in all, however, the episode of the Egyptian taskmaster illustrates only that Moses would stand up for those he had particular reason to care for. It does not demonstrate this as an independent quality which was part of Moses’ character.
As a result of this killing Moses had to flee from Egypt. He fled to the land of Midian and stopped at the well. There, the daughters of Jethro were filling the troughs to water their sheep. The other shepherds waited maliciously until the troughs were full and then chased the girls away, intending to water their own flocks from the water painstakingly drawn into the troughs. Evidently, the hapless daughters of Jethro were subject to this abuse daily, as they could not defend themselves against the other shepherds. Moses stood up for them and watered their flocks, allowing them to return home with their sheep in a timely manner, which surprised their father.
Moses was chosen to be the leader, the lawgiver, of the nation of Israel. In choosing a leader, G-d seeks such qualities of leadership as Moses demonstrated in this reading, qualities of caring and of integrity. Abraham was chosen to be the progenitor of the nation of G-d because he demonstrated similar integrity with the management of his flocks. It goes without saying that he was a person who cared deeply for others, both friends and strangers. King David was also a shepherd early in life, learning to care for individual needs through the tending of his flock. It is no coincidence that these three great leaders of Israel – Abraham the founder of the nation, Moses the lawgiver and greatest prophet to have ever lived, and David, the founder of the dynasty of the kings of Israel – all began their careers as shepherds, looking after large flocks and doing what was best for them in general as well as tending to their individual needs.
A leader assumes responsibility for everyone, the helpless and the strong alike. While a leader particularly looks after his own, leadership requires care for those outside of one’s immediate circle of responsibility. It means displaying integrity even when no one is watching. Leadership demands our very best, although it also demands that was are not boastful of these qualities. If there is any trait that stood out in Moses more than any other, it is his profound humility, which also is expressed in this reading, when Moses shows preference to give up the leadership to someone more worthy than he.