From the start Moses is uncomfortable with the task imposed upon him. He expressed reluctance at the Burning Bush to serve as the “liberator” of Israel from Pharaoh’s brutal oppression, suggesting that others were more worthy than he. Eventually (Midrashic interpretation describes the conversation at the Burning Bush as lasting the better part of a week) Moses conceded, but he had to be persuaded and given a few tricks to keep up his sleeve to convince both the members of his tribe as well as Pharaoh.
The initial reception for Moses among the Israelite camp was encouraging. Long had the people hoped for this fulfilment of God’s promise to materialize, and they expressed faith that Moses would succeed in his mission. His reception in Pharaoh’s throne-room was not as warm. “Pharaoh replied, ‘Who is this Lord that I should heed His voice to send away Israel? I do not know this Lord, nor will I send Israel away!'” (Exodus 5:2)
Moses and Aaron failed to negotiate a temporary reprieve for Israel to observe a festival in the wilderness. To the contrary, their attempts had a devastating effect, as Pharaoh then made conditions even harsher for the slaves, arguing that their workload must be too light if the slaves are entertaining such dreams. The Israelites who served as foremen of the work were embittered by this decree, and they confronted Moses and Aaron, accusing them of placing a sword in the hands of Pharaoh and his subjects to kill them. (vs. 21) Moses himself felt betrayed, and he expressed his deep frustration before God: “Moses returned to God and he said, ‘My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have You sent me? From the time I came before Pharaoh to speak in Your name his evil has increased upon the people, and You have not saved Your people.'” (5:22-23)
The greatest fears of Moses had come to fruition. His efforts were counterproductive. He had failed in his mission. It would have been better had he not rocked the boat at all. Moses had come armed with the confidence of God’s promises of success. He took on the mission despite his misgivings because of the Lord’s insistence. Now he was left demoralized, discouraged and defeated, rejected by his own people who had only recently pinned their hopes in him.
A lesser person would indeed have thrown in the towel. Others would have tucked their tails between their feet and slunk off like some guilty raccoon. But Moses was not defeated. Frustrated he was, but not finished. God had given His word and Moses did not doubt God’s word for a moment. While he complained to God over the plight of the people, it was at this critical time that his true colors of leadership shone through brightly. He did not give up. He had lost this battle but there was a bigger war that he was fighting.
Setbacks are part of every war, part of every successful endeavor. The one who does not fail is no hero. The one who faces no adversity cannot claim courage, although courage may be latent within. What defines leaders is not how they deal with success but how they deal with failure. A rising sport star in NZ is vying for various world titles in heavyweight boxing. Thus far Joseph Parker is undefeated, as his wins against champion after champion accumulate. Known for his speed and the power he packs in his punches, Parker has a reputation for strong discipline. But only defeat can truly test a person. A verse in proverbs puts this principle into terse words: “Seven times the righteous will fall – and then rise, while the wicked will stumble in their evil.” (Proverbs 24:16) Having the tenacity to hold onto the bigger goal and not be crushed by defeat, demonstrating the ability to get up and brush off the dust, continuing the journey forward, is a hallmark of leaders.
One final point on the mark of leadership. Most people have an instinct to seek a cause for failure, and we have a tendency to find others blameworthy for the failure. When Moses later conveyed the message of God to the people, the covenant struck with the forefathers with the promise to bring their descendants to the Promised Land, the people did not listen. “Moses spoke accordingly to the Children of Israel, and they did not hear Moses, from shortness of breath and the hard work.” (6:9) The Torah explicitly states the reason for Israel’s inability to process God’s message. Their spirit was crushed under the burden of hard labor, and they were not in a position to entertain bright hopes. Yet, when Moses next spoke with God he expressed doubts that the Pharaoh will be receptive to his message. After all, even the people of Israel had not taken him seriously! “Moses spoke before God saying, here the Children of Israel have not listened to me, and how will Pharaoh listen to me, while I have faltering lips!” (6:12)
Rabbi Avraham Rivlin points out that we already know why Israel did not heed the words of Moses. The Torah informed us of their difficulty absorbing the message due to their overwhelming workload. But Moses held himself accountable for this failure. He did not try and blame it on the circumstances, on the hard labor or on Israel’s general reception to hearing his words. He looked at what weaknesses he had, he pointed to his stammer, to his speech impediment, as the cause, because leaders take responsibility.