In this week's parashah, we find the newly freed Israelites on their way out of Egypt. God leads them on a longer route that avoids Philistine lands, concerned that the Israelites might have a "change of heart" and wish to return to Egypt if faced with the prospect of war (Exodus 13:17). But the Israelites are unaware of this reasoning and complain, question, and even argue with Moses at each stop, recalling the security of life in Egypt. Moses eventually becomes exasperated by the people's complaints and grows concerned for his own safety. He asks God, "What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!" (Exodus 17:4).
This parashah shows the beginnings of a communal dynamic. These people are unafraid to challenge their leaders and demand evidence that the path they are taking will lead them to a better place.
Reading this with the benefit of hindsight, we feel immense sympathy for Moses. He has brought the Israelites out of oppression in Egypt toward a land where they will be free and in control of their own destiny. Yet these stubborn, ungrateful people will not stop complaining and arguing every step of the way.
But let's pause for a moment. What if we could suspend our knowledge of how the story ends? Wouldn't we be grumbling and quarrelling too?
We have just observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, celebrating the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. But the history behind this day, like the Exodus narrative, has been distorted by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., though hailed as a hero today, was deeply unpopular in his lifetime. The last poll when Rev. King was alive, conducted by Gallup, showed he had a 63% disapproval rating among Americans, with 39% rating him -5 on a 5-point favorability scale. While he was viewed much more positively by Black Americans, 21% said his fight for civil rights was not moving fast enough.
This is a familiar narrative when it comes to pushing for significant social change, where leadership comes with serious challenges. Time and time again, Moses struggles with his appointment as God's servant and doubts whether he can deliver the Israelites from oppression or hold the Israelites together through their years in the wilderness. We can imagine that Rev. King must have also struggled with frustration and doubt - due to both the difficulty of achieving civil rights in America and the challenge of carrying the mantle of a diverse group who shared an overarching struggle, but presumably had very different ideas of how best to overcome it.
Louis Menand reflected on Rev. King's leadership in his 2018 article for The New Yorker, "When Martin Luther King Jr. Became a Leader:"
"Movements are created when a leader emerges to speak on behalf of the aggrieved. And the role of the leader is to hold the aggrieved together long enough to accomplish their goals, or some of them…King did not only have to deal with the obstacles presented by Southern whites... The brutality of their racism, and their refusal to hide it, worked to the movement's advantage. More dangerous were the schisms within. Thurgood Marshall...dismissed King's protests as street theatre. Malcolm X called the March on Washington 'the farce on Washington.' Younger activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee resented King's celebrity."
But Rev. King did not turn away from his role at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, the night before his assassination, he delivered a powerful message of leadership that explicitly referenced Moses and the conclusion of the Torah to end what would be his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop:"
"I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"
It would be years before America looked back on Rev. King and assigned him the status of "hero." He died in Memphis a deeply unpopular man whose words and actions were seen by detractors as detrimental to America and by many would-be supporters as not moving fast enough.
And so too it was for Moses. Hindsight provides us with a convenient narrative arc. But if we put ourselves in the story, the Israelites' grumbling and quarrelling becomes understandable, laying bare the deep challenges Moses faced as a leader that would color the Israelites' years in the wilderness - the challenges of leading a community through significant social change