Friday, January 11, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha


Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here:  Parshat Va'Eira
A Leader to the People or a Leader of the People?

There are two types of leaders.  There is the leader that comes to the people with a vision, who brings a message from on high down to those he would lead.  Such a leader's goal is to gather followers by finding those who are persuaded by his message, his passion, his vision.   And then there is the leader who emerges from within the people, who has internalized their deepest concerns and passions, who can crystallize and articulate the inchoate longings of the people.  The goal of such a leader is to bring this message - their message - to those in power, to the larger society, in order to bring about true change.

Two types of leaders:  a leader from above and a leader from below.   Or, as the Gemara in Yoma (19a) phrases it in reference to the Kohanim:  messengers of God or messengers of the people.  Which one was Moshe?   Framed this way, the answer is obvious.  Moshe of course is the one who brings God's message down from on high, who brings the tablets from Mt. Sinai.    But his type of leadership was already concretized from its very inception.  

Moshe's career undoubtedly stemmed from his deep care for his people: "And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and he looked on their burdens..." (Shemot 2:11).  What a tremendous act!  To leave the security and comfort of Pharaoh's house, to go out and do something about his suffering people, simply because he cared.  He was motivated out of a sense of kinship to directly see, understand, and feel their suffering.  But while Moshe was acting for the people, his motivation was his own, and his actions were also his own.   Thus, on the next day, he is rejected by the people: "Who made you a prince and judge over us?" (2:14).   He cares for them, he acts on their behalf, but he has not taken the time to talk to them, to understand them.  How could it be otherwise?  Moshe is an outsider, coming from a position of privilege.   He may be the leader for the people, but without investing in them or identifying with them, he will not be a leader from the people, of the people.

We would be hard-pressed to find any instance where Moshe actually has a meaningful discourse with those he is leading.  When Moshe first encountered God in the burning bush, he was concerned with how his message would be received.  What if they ask what God's name is?  What if they say that God has not sent me?  What if "they will not believe me?" and what if "they will not listen to my voice?"(4:1).   In response, God revealed God's name to Moshe and gave him signs to show the people.  Moshe has imagined an entire conversation taking place when he comes to the people.  But then what happened? "Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed..." (4:30-31).  There is no back-and-forth, no asking for God's name, no asking for proof.  It is just - here's what God said, here are the signs.   And they immediately believe.  

It seems that no one was in a position to get a real conversation going.  Moshe was not going to engage the people, and they were not going to engage him.   When Moshe delivered a message they were eager to hear, they followed him, but they did not embrace him, they did not connect with him.  Thus, although the people believed and heard, it was not Moshe in whom they were believing, it was not Moshe to whom they were listening.  "And the people believed and they heard that God had remembered his people..." (4:31).  Moshe is completely absent from this verse.  It was God and the message that they connected to, not Moshe.

Moshe had won the people's backing without any difficult investment in the people, without truly understanding and addressing their fears and concerns, without creating relationships.    And such a backing is easily lost.  When Moshe and Aharon come to Pharaoh, the people are nowhere to be seen: "'Afterwards Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh...' (5:1).  And where were the elders?  They had dropped off one by one." (Rashi, quoting the Shemot Rabbah).   One can just imagine the scene.  Moshe says to Pharaoh: "We, together with the leaders of the people..."  "Together with whom?"  And then Moshe looks behind him, and there is no one there.   He had just become a leader without a people.  He was truly a "messenger of God," but he was certainly not a "messenger of the people."

And so opens our parasha.   The people have just vehemently complained and rejected Moshe, Moshe brings their message to God, and God sends him back to the people.  Once again, no success.  "And they did not listen to Moshe, because of their anguished spirit and the cruel slavery." (6:9).  He never really had their ear, and he certainly does not now.  So what is God's response?  Forget the people, just worry about Pharaoh: " Go, speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the people of Israel go out of his land." (6:11).  

From this point on in the narrative, the Children of Israel disappear.  The only players in the entire story of the ten plagues leading up to the smiting of the first born and being driven out of Egypt are Moshe, Aharon, the magicians, and the Egyptian people.  Moshe represents God, not his people, and thus the people are nowhere to be seen.

Moshe brings a message not from the people, but to the people, and it is one he is imposing on them.  It is actually very similar to his message to Pharaoh: This is what God says, this is what will happen, this is what you must do.  And the Torah, when it sums up the mission of Moshe and Aharon, implicitly equates their relationship to the people with their relationship to Pharaoh:  "And [God] gave them a charge to the people of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt..." (6:13).   Moshe is a messenger of God.  A messenger of God to the people and a messenger of God to Pharaoh.

It is thus not surprising to find that when the time of redemption comes, the people must be forcibly dragged out of Egypt.  Just as Moshe's mission had to be forced on Pharaoh, it had to be forced on the people.  They had to be driven out, and so it was: "For they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not tarry..." (12:39).    God took us out with a mighty hand, a mighty hand that was needed not only to compel Pharaoh, but to compel the people as well.  "For with a mighty hand he shall let them go and with a mighty hand he shall drive them out." (5:23). 

This type of leadership is necessary at times.  Sometimes the people do not know what is best for them.  Sometimes they are too enslaved in body, too enslaved in soul, to have the vision and strength needed to bring about change, to set themselves free.  Perhaps it was only Moshe who could have been their leader at this time.   Perhaps it could only be someone who came from a position of privilege, with the freedom of body and spirit, who could have the clear vision, who could understand what true freedom is.  And perhaps only someone who had not had ingrained in him the qualities of subservience and submission, could have the courage and the fortitude to withstand setbacks and failures.    The people could not have had a leader from their midst.  To take the people out of Egypt needed a leadership from above, a leadership of a "mighty hand."  They needed Moshe as their leader.

This leadership, however, will not be able to take them into the land.  That needs a leader from the people and of the people.   After having been freed and having received the Torah, the people would need a leader who, first and foremost, was a messenger of the people.  Although Moshe was to be the one to actualize the first four stages of redemption: "vi'hotzeiti... vi'hitzalti... vi'ga'alti... vi'lakachti, and I will take out... and I will save... and I will redeem... and I will take them to me as a people" (6:6-7), he was not to be the one to realize the fifth and final stage of redemption, "vi'heiveiti, and I will bring them into the Land..." (6:8). For this, a leader to the people would not suffice.  For this, there would need to be a leader from the people and of the people.

A forcible leadership may be necessary in the short run, but it will not last, and it is not what a free people need.   A leadership that respects the people, that invests in each individual, that embodies the people's concerns, fears, passions, and ultimately their vision for themselves is the leadership that which was needed to bring the people into the land.  And it is the leadership that is needed today.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This year, we are experimenting with a new January zman.  During January, morning seder is devoted to a new mesekhet, unrelated to the learning of the regular zman, and the afternoon consists of special classes, in machshava and contemporary topics, taught by special guest rabbis. 

This zman started last Wednesday, as students returned from their mid-Winter break.  Students threw themselves into the learning of the first perek of Makkot and the topic of eidim zomimim.   There has been a great kol Torah in the beit midrash as students start to conquer this new mesekhet.  We also had a nice number of college students with us for the week, participating in our first ever College Intersession Week of Learning.  It was great to have these students in our beit midrash and participating in our learning.

As for our special afternoon topics and our guest rabbi - this week we were blessed to once again welcome Rabbi Chaim Rapoport as a scholar-in-residence at YCT.  Rabbi Rapoport comes to YCT on a yearly basis, to spend a full week giving shiurim and connecting to the guys.  This year, Rabbi Rapoport devoted his shiurim to topics relating to sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, teenagers and single adults and the challenges of the halakhic restrictions, and dealing with allegations of abuse.  The presentations were a wonderful merging of halakha, sensitivity, and policy, and students gained so much not only from Rabbi Rapoport's erudition, but also from his role modeling of what a responsible, sensitive Orthodox community rabbi should be.

This week we also partnered with Lincoln Square Synagogue, and on Wednesday night held a panel discussion entitled "Orthodox and Gay: At School, At Shul, and At Home".  The event took place at Lincoln Square Synagogue, and over 200 people turned out.  The evening began with a three brief personal narratives from gay and lesbian members of the community, where they describe with eloquence and grace something of their own journey and a hope they have for the future.  It then moved on to a panel discussion with Dr. Michelle Friedman, YCT's Director of Pastoral Counseling, and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, moderated by Rabbi Shaul Robinson, senior rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue.  After their sensitive presentations there followed a Q&A session from members of the audience.  Perhaps beyond anything specific that was said, the most moving part of the evening was a sense of collaboration between all members of the community, both gay and straight, a shared commitment to work together to understand one another and to make our communities welcoming and inclusive.

Rabbi Robinson opened the evening with a dvar Torah on the parasha that I would like to share.  He quoted the Mesekh Chakhma who commented on the verse that states that God sent Moshe and Aharon to Bnei Yisrael and to Pharaoh - a seeming equivalence between the two.  The Mesekh Chakhma explains that there were those of Bnei Yisrael who owned their own slaves, and that God said to Moshe that he cannot free Bnei Yisrael from slavery until they free the slaves that they own.   We, the Modern Orthodox community, said Rabbi Robinson, refuse to tolerate any prejudice or intolerance towards us from the outside world.  But how can we demand that from those outside of our community if we allow for intolerance within our community.  Truly words to take to heart.

Finally, some Mazal Tovs:

In the births department -- Mazal Tov to Rabbi Adam Scheier (YCT 2004) and Abby Brown on the birth of a baby girl.  Mazal Tov to Rabbi Kenny (YCT 2009) and Lisa Birnbaum on the birth of a baby girl.  Shetizku l'gadlan li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!

And in the wedding department -- Mazal Tov to Mikey Stein (YCT 2012) and to Shevy Baskin on their engagement over the mid-Winter break.  And Mazal Tov to Jon Leener (YCT 2016) and Faith Brigham on their wedding, also over the mid-Winter break.  Shetizku livnot bayit ne'eman bi'Yisrael!