This past winter saw the release of a movie version of the Exodus story, directed by Ridley Scott. I will leave it to film critics and biblical scholars to debate the merits and deficiencies of the production. For me, the single most symbolic point of departure from the biblical original comes at the Red Sea, but is not the parting of the water (which, admittedly, was graphically most impressive). Everything you need to know about the filmmaker's orientation, and where it differs from Torah, is made clear when Moses (played by Christian Bale)—despairing that the sea poses a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the Israelites flight from Pharaoh's chariots—lifts up his sword and casts it into the waters.
Watching this, I was taken aback. What has happened to Moses' staff? What's Christian Bale doing with a sword? Could this have been the model Torah wanted us to embrace of the leader of Israel? Moses as warrior?
As most should recognize, Moses' authority is symbolized in his staff. A shepherd's staff. The same staff he threw down in the face of Pharaoh. The same staff he used to turn the Nile's water into blood. The one he used to part the Red Sea, to bring forth water from the rock, to heal the people and, with it elevated above his head, to deliver them in battle. It is not the tool of a soldier, but rather an instrument of the pasture. Simply put, the role of the leader as presented to us in Torah is not a warrior but a shepherd. For the Torah, leadership is not a feature of g'vurah, of machismo, of "might." It goes much deeper than that.
The "leader" of the Torah is qualified by a unique set of credentials. For one thing, he is picked by God. We see this first with Abraham, then with each of the younger siblings of the patriarchal families. So, too, this week's parashah begins with a reminder that the tribe of Levi is set aside by and for God: "Thus you shall set the Levites apart from the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine" (Numbers 8:14). Seemingly each of these "elections" is a taste of an overarching theme within Torah: the setting aside of the people Israel to be God's agent or messenger unto the peoples of the earth.
And just as this week's portion begins with the selection of the tribe of Levi, its bookend at the parashah's conclusion reminds us, lest we miss the point, the choice of Moses is also of Divine origin: "When a prophet of the Eternal arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Eternal" (Numbers 12:6-8).
Clearly Moses is special. As with the choosing of the younger siblings in Genesis, so Moses is the youngest of his family. He is also of the set-aside tribe of Levi. But what distinguishes Moses as leader is something else. He hardly has what we would seek in a contemporary leader. He's not good at public speaking. He gets overwhelmed easily. He is insecure. He has anger management issues. He's not your typical Hollywood hero. And that's where the filmmakers miss the boat. They should read Torah more carefully. Especially Parashat B'haalot'cha.
There are three narratives in particular that highlight what I believe to be Moses' crowning characteristic. The first is but a very brief reference. The people, as usual, were complaining. Also as usual, God has little patience with them. A divine fire breaks out in the camp. Then Torah tersely comments, "The people cried out to Moses, Moses prayed to the Eternal, and the fire died down" (Numbers 11:2). To be sure Moses is desperately trying to keep order, to referee the deteriorating relationship between God and the people. It eventually gets to Moses and God responds by alleviating some of his burden. God tells Moses to solicit from among the elders seventy others. God reassures Moses: "I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you and you shall not bear it alone" (Numbers 11:17). This brings us to the second story.
God did, indeed, communicate with these seventy elders. And they became ecstatic. But two of them, Eldad and Medad, got carried away. They did not restrict themselves to the Tent of Meeting (to where God had limited them). Eldad and Medad went out into the camp, among the people, whereupon a child came running to Moses complaining, "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp" (Numbers 11:25). What strikes me is how Moses responds: "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Eternal's people were prophets, that the Eternal put [the divine] spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29).
In both of these incidents we see a leader who is concerned less with his own needs than with the needs of others. Protecting the people from the wrath of the Eternal. Resisting the glory of exclusivity. Perhaps, one could argue, Moses is just getting tired, thinking, "Let somebody else get God's word." This would make sense. His was an enormous responsibility. But the other possibility, the one that I feel dominates Moses' most unique attribute, is his diminution of self in the service of others. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in his defense of his attacking siblings.
In one of Torah's most dramatic incidents, "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married . . ." (Numbers 12:1). Setting aside their motivation and the deeper meaning of this remarkable story, I am perennially struck less by their evil than by Moses' selfless act on their behalf. In punishment for their slander God turns Miriam into a leper. (Aaron's lack of obvious punishment is another story.) Certainly entitled to feeling triumphant vindication at God's retribution, Moses is overwhelmed, not by the shame brought upon him by his brother and sister, but by the sight of his sister: "O God, pray heal her," Moses beckons (Numbers 12:13). It is an extraordinary act of compassion. And this, at least for me, is what makes Moses the hero of Torah. As we are told immediately after his public humiliation: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth" (Numbers 12:3). Indeed. But more than just humility, his leadership was always embodied in his compassion for others.
In his book The Gifts of the Jews,1 Thomas Cahill emphasizes that what set the God of the Israelites apart from the other deities of the ancient Near East was that this was a God who actually cared about people. This was a God who demanded that we care about others as well. It should not surprise us then that this would be the defining attribute of Torah's sacred protagonist. Not his ability to lead, not his warrior prowess, but rather his simple humanity. Moses' ability to care, even at his own expense. Moses, the one who humbly leads the flock with nothing more than the staff of a shepherd.
Would that all "leaders" were chosen on the basis of such qualifications.
Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (NY: Doubleday, a division of Random House, 1998), p. 240
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Rabbi Steven Kushner thoughtfully notes the power of Moses' staff as symbolic of his compassionate and humble leadership style. In addition to symbols, the repetition of words and phrases in the Torah is a key way to emphasize the importance of a message. With that in mind, a concept that is repeated frequently in biblical text is that "there shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you," (Exodus 12:49, also see Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29). As a Hebrew child reared by Pharaoh's daughter, and as an Israelite married to a Cushite, Moses was particularly attuned to the experience of being a stranger. As a leader, Moses' sensitivity to the pain and struggle of others emerged directly from this experience.
We recall being strangers in a strange land in this week's parashah:
"The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Let the Israelite people offer the passover sacrifice at its set time: you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time. . . . you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites." (Numbers 9:1-3)
The Israelites pause to remember leaving the straits of Egypt in the midst of their desert journey.
Today, commemorating the Exodus every Shabbat in the Kiddush prayer1 and during Passover instils compassion for others, reminding us to draw people into an ever-expanding circle of friendship, collaboration, and connection. We not only consider the strangers of the past or those we identify surrounding us, but also, like Moses, we all know what it feels like to be a stranger. We know because some of us have embraced a divergent path than the one in which we were raised. We have explained to our family that we are in love with someone of a different religion. We have moved to a new place and walked into a synagogue not knowing a soul. The moments when we feel like a stranger are more numerous than we can count. We are commanded to act on these experiences, reaching out a hand with an open heart and a generous spirit. Our ability to do so helps set the contours of our spiritual path and our sacred leadership.
1. Mishkan T'filah (NY: CCAR, 2007), p. 123
Rabbi Kimberly Herzog Cohen is an associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868