Shmot: A Leader Is Born

In advance of a reunion tonight of students of last year’s Tochnit Aliza program at Midreshet Nishmat, a student sent out this article on pay equity at Jewish institutions, implying that we are rising Jewish leaders.  Throughout most of my life, it’s always seemed that others were much more well-connected or knowledgeable Jewishly than I, but I realized during a recent trip to the United States, that like it or not, the decision that I’ve made to come learn and live in Israel, have made me an ambassador of Torah-observant Judaism and of the State of Israel when I cross the border.

So I guess I have what to say about Jewish leadership.

In this week’s parshah, the eminent leader of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu, is born.  We learn through the Midrash though, that it is through the merit of women, that he is born and able to survive, despite Pharoah’s decree that all Jewish baby boys be thrown into the Nile.

A Shabbat host pointed out to me last week that if you ask pretty much any successful person who or what was their greatest influence, they won’t say their university or their professional networking group.  It’s their mother.

Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, Rashi says, was born on the boundary of Egypt when Jacob’s family first arrived. This, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, means that Yocheved belongs neither to the generation born in the Holy Land in Cana’an, to whom galut will always be a foreign world, nor is she of the generation born in Egypt, for whom the state of exile is a fact of life. Rather, she straddles both these worlds, having intimate knowledge of galut as well as the vision to supersede it. It is in her womb that could be formed and who could raise the one who could redeem the B’nei Yisrael from their exile.

The role of a leader in B’nei Yisrael is not only to defend preach and govern, but also to nurture. When Moshe is driven from Egypt to Midian to become a shepherd of Yitro’s sheep. A leader cannot simply point the way and a teacher cannot simply delivery a lesson; he must “shepherd” his flock, supplying  each student with guidance and knowledge in a way that can he can absorb and digest.

After playing around with trying to find a regular time to study Torah, I’ve been learning once a week with an Israeli chevruta, studying Sefer Yehoshua, who became the leader of B’nei Yisrael after Moshe Rabbeinu’s death.  The strength of our chevruta is the different background and experiences that formed the different perspectives we each bring to the table.

In Sefer Yehoshua we see a different model of leadership than under Moshe.  Moshe was at a level that no Jewish leader has been or will ever reach.  Chosen personally by Hashem, he was uniquely qualified to stand above everyone.  Yehoshua leads by  empowering others.  As an example, when Moshe led B’nei Yisrael through Yam Suf, it was Moshe, who split the sea.  There is a similar miracle when the Jews enter Eretz Yisrael.  The waters stand to one side, but it is the Kohanim (Priests), not Yehoshua, who make the waters stand.

We often view leaders as someone uniquely qualified, someone above and beyond our capabilities.  But really, the best leaders are enablers, who can come down to the level of the followers and bring up the level of the team.

The best rabbis and teachers are like Moshe Rabbeinu, who break material down so that students can understand at their level.  The best lay leaders encourage others to strive toward higher levels or understanding, or to lead them to the waters of Torah in the first place.

Like Yocheved, those who straddle two worlds are in a unique position to affect change.  Those who make aliyah from other countries, or those who have a foot in different sectors of the Jewish community have a fresh perspective to share. The Jewish people today aren’t about rabbis and the rest of us, or Torah-observant Jews and the rest of us. Every individual in Am Yisrael can lead by example, raising up the level of the collective.  We also lead by crossing boundaries, by understanding Israel as well as galut, and raising consciousness of the ability to bring about the final redemption.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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