By Rabbi George Stern
Discussions about leaders and leadership styles have been ubiquitous recently. The Tanakh (Jewish Scripture) is replete with stories about leaders bad and good — from the often-problematic patriarchs to prophets unafraid to condemn corruption and lawlessness among kings.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is largely about power — the confrontation between Moses, acting on his own and as God’s spokesperson, and the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.”
Quite astonishing is that Moses managed to confront Pharaoh and live to tell the tale. This week, in Exodus 10-11, Moses negotiates the freedom of the Hebrews, using the last three plagues as threats. Pharaoh vacillates, agreeing first to allow just the males to go worship God, then to release all the Hebrews for that purpose (but without their herds), and finally to let all the people and their possessions go permanently. After each “agreement” Pharaoh reneged — leading ultimately to the disastrous use of his military to drive the Hebrews back into slavery, a tactic that backfired utterly.
What factors led to Moses’ success?
First, was his own personality. No longer the reluctant stutterer, Moses is self-assured, unafraid even to respond with harsh and sarcastic replies to Pharaoh’s threats (see his retort in Exodus 10:27-29). He was a strong negotiator, capable of expressing his demands clearly and knowing how to “stick to his guns.” He also knew how to escalate demands in response to Pharaoh’s lying.
Second, Moses’ demand for freedom was entirely justified — indeed, supported by God.
Third, Pharaoh’s stubbornness. The hardening of his heart (believed in ancient times to be the seat of the intellect) began as self-inflicted. He “knew it all.” He could never admit that his decrees were destructive both to himself and to his people. Nor would he heed his own advisers, who urged him to let the Hebrews go: “How long shall this one be a snare to us? … Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (10:7).
Pharaoh saw no need to understand who the Hebrews were or the role Joseph had played in Egyptian history. He was blinded by his own self-absorption, unable to anticipate the consequences of his actions upon himself or others. The death of his own son and the first-born of Egyptians, whether literal or metaphorical, was a natural outgrowth of his own blindness.
A fourth factor in Moses’ success might well have been his ability to win over some of Pharaoh’s own men, so that Pharaoh received the same message from outsider (Moses) and insiders (the advisers) alike. Perhaps Moses’ earlier challenges in gaining the trust of the Hebrews themselves had taught him that he could not free them on his own; he needed the support of family (Aaron and Miriam), friends (the tribal elders), and even people he did not at first know.
A fifth factor was the positive spirituality undergirding Moses’ exhortations (with God’s support, of course) to the Hebrews themselves. The second part of parashah describes the ritual Moses prescribed for the Hebrews as they readied to depart — the preparation of lambs “without blemish” to be eaten the evening before the exodus would begin. The ritual meal was communal, in which smaller units combined to share one lamb (an ecologically and economically sound way of minimizing waste) and everyone knew that all throughout their dwellings Hebrews were engaged in the same activity.
Moreover, the ritual was to be repeated “throughout the ages,” with special attention to the eating of matzah, an accessible food that could be easily prepared wherever Hebrews and their descendants could bake bread. Moses created what must have been a festive, positive atmosphere that would serve as a happy memory during a long and grueling journey, made palatable by the knowledge that their sacrifices would earn them the eternal thanks of an infinite number of grateful descendants.
We still invoke that time annually in our Seders as we link ourselves to those brave (and not-so-brave) women and men fleeing Pharaoh — Hebrews who once had been migrants to Egypt and who now, accompanied by a “mixed multitude” of non-Hebrews, were emigrants once again.
The communal nature of the ritual leads to one final observation. Moses had in his tactical repertoire two tools we basically lack: magic, in the form of blood to be painted on the Hebrews’ lintels to ward off the angel of death; and a place to which to flee. Neither Rust Belt workers, Appalachian and rural poor, inner-city people of color, nor those reading this column are likely to have either tool available.
What we do have, however, is a strong sense of obligation to one another that our religious and American traditions have embraced, and a sense of justice not unlike what motivated Moses and untold generations since.
Rabbi George Stern is a former congregational rabbi, the former executive director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement and the former executive director of Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN). The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.