This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. Thisd’var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group including Cindy, Ed, Maxine C., Maxine S., Rachel, and Rob.
Help wanted: Powerful leader, mover and shaker, with strong organizational skills and an ability to motivate the masses.
If Pharaoh and Moses submitted their resumes for this job opening, which of the two would be most likely to get the job? At the beginning of Parashat Va-eira, Pharaoh has the clear advantage. He is sure of himself, focused, commands authoritatively, and refuses to be sidetracked by setbacks. Moses, on the other hand, has a communication deficit, cowers before the complaints of the masses, and demands more resources from his boss. The end of the struggle between these two leaders is well-known. Less notable, but of critical importance to how Moses ultimately won the job, are Moses and Pharaoh’s divergent approaches in the face of adversity found in this week’s parashah. The portion opens with God revealing a new name to Moses, the ineffable “yod-hei-vav-hei” (YHVH). The Hebrew root of YHVH hearkens to God’s previous introduction to Moses as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” (Exodus 3:14), which has been translated in a number of ways including, “I will be what I will be.”1 The name represents existence itself. Its pronunciation was known only to Moses and the generations of priests who followed him. The key to Moses’s ascension as a leader and Pharaoh’s downfall lies precisely in how the two of them understood the God of existence and the existential state of their own being.
Pharaoh’s leadership is authoritarian in style. Over the course of the first three plagues he summons his sorcerers to reproduce the tricks of the Hebrew God. He remains steadfast in his claim of leadership, and is absorbed in his own power. At first, he dismisses the plagues, which his magicians can easily mimic. Plagues one through three bring Pharaoh little personal inconvenience, as he can avoid discomfort in the walls of his palace. He pays no heed to the fact that others are harmed.
In our temple’s Torah study group, Evelyn suggests that Pharaoh’s myopic self-centeredness is an early sign of his addiction to power, which deepens with the increasing adversity of the plagues. Larry adds that Pharaoh leads through oppression by subjugating and dehumanizing not only the Hebrew slaves, but also Egyptians.
While acknowledging Pharaoh’s personal responsibility for his actions, members of the study group were discomforted with the notion that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he was not open to repentance. Twelfth-century scholar Rashi delves into this classical dilemma: [God said] “ ‘Since he has wickedly resisted Me, and it is manifest to Me that the heathen nations find no spiritual satisfaction in setting their whole heart to return to Me penitently, it is better that his heart should be hardened.’ ”2 Pharaoh’s hardened heart reflects the growing self-aggrandizement of his own leadership. In Deuteronomy the Torah speaks of “circumcising the heart” of the Israelites, thus opening it to the love of God and a covenantal relationship (Deuteronomy 30:6). Pharaoh, who believed himself to be a god, could not open his own heart to the power of YHVH. Even in the face of the existential destruction of the land and people he ruled, Pharaoh could not genuinely submit to God’s Presence.
While Pharaoh’s leadership came from a place of power and subjugation, Moses’s leadership centers on humility. That humility begins with Moses’s admission of his own deficit, his impeded speech. Since speaking is difficult for Moses, he has learned to use his words judiciously and to listen carefully. Moses listens not only to the words of the Israelites, but also to the feelings that lie beneath them. When the Israelites balk at the message of redemption Moses brings from God, Moses understands their reaction, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Moses has parlayed his speech deficit into an important leadership trait making him an empathetic listener.
Moses’s speech impediment underlies other critical leadership qualities: the courage to admit his weakness and the ability to ask for help. Moses implores God: “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me!” (Exodus 6:30). God responds by appointing Aaron to stand with Moses and speak to Pharaoh for him. Moses knows his own limitations, and is neither afraid to admit his weakness nor threatened by sharing the mantle of leadership with his brother Aaron.
In the Torah study session, Cindy points out that with the help of Aaron (the biblical version of a personal assistant for someone with a disability), Moses takes steps toward overcoming his speech impediment. With the progression of the plagues Moses assumes more and more of the leadership role. God instructs Moses to have Aaron initiate the first three plagues. But Moses announces and God initiates the fourth plague. God instructs Moses and Aaron together to bring the soot that will cause the plague of boils, but Moses’s actions alone initiate the plague. And, Moses alone raises his arms to the sky to bring on the hail. Successively through the course of the plagues Moses conquers his speech impediment and becomes a more confident leader.
By the end of the parashah, Pharaoh pleads with Moses to intervene with God on his behalf and goes as far as to admit: “I stand guilty this time. The Eternal is in the right, and I and my people are wrong” (Exodus 9:27). The balance of power in Egypt is beginning to shift from Pharaoh to Moses. Pharaoh continues to retreat into his ever-narrowing world, even after his feeble attempts to repent. Moses gains the respect of Israelites and Egyptians by listening and responding to the existential reality that YHVH puts before them.
Who would you pick for the job? How will you look deeper in judging leaders from what you learn from Moses and Pharaoh?
- See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 363?365
- See Rashi on Exodus 7:3
Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.