As I write today, world dignitaries are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela at his memorial service in South Africa. In the eulogy he gave, President Barack Obama called him “a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”
When we turn our attention to great leaders like Mandela, we often think of them standing alone, ahead of the pack, with the people following behind. In Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we are introduced to one of the great leaders of the Jewish people: Moses. Moses also stood up for what he believed. The way that Moses’ story is told in Shemot reminds us that great leaders do not stand alone, and the greatest are influenced and helped by everyone with whom they come into contact.
This whole portion is a lead up to what we consider the real “action” of the Exodus, when Moses demands from Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” However, this background is given because it is so important. It tells of Moses’ early influences: the people who cared for him in his youth, and taught him to recognize injustice.
As far back as Moses’ birth, we learn that the midwives who attended the Israelite women were fearless actors for justice. The Torah explains that the midwives defy Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew boys. When Pharaoh questions them about their disobedience, they lie and say that the women give birth before the midwives can get to them. The Rabbinic midrash Exodus Rabbah goes even further: “Not only did they not do what Pharaoh told them, they even dared to do deeds of kindness for the children they saved.”
Shemot emphasizes the love Moses’ family gave him. Also defying the decree, it says of his mother, “when she saw how beautiful he was she hid him for three months.” When she can no longer hide him, she and her daughter Miriam enact a plan to float him in a basket in the river. Miriam stands by to make sure he survives. This family is willing to risk their own lives, by disobeying Pharaoh, for the life of Moses.
Finally, Pharaoh’s daughter chooses to save Moses. The midrash recognizes this as an act of defiance, imagining her handmaidens saying to her: “When a king issues a decree, even if the whole world does not obey it, his own children and the members of his household do obey it. Yet you would violate your father’s decree!” Even with everything to lose — her family, her social standing, her very life — Pharaoh’s daughter is compelled by love for the baby Moses to stand up on the side of life.
Through the story of Moses’ early life, we learn how crucial the smallest acts on the side of justice can be — serving as an example to the emerging leaders in our midst.
In the eulogy, Obama also recognized those qualities of Mandela, the ones that truly made him great: “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.”
Like Moses, Mandela led with everything he had learned from his entire life, big and small.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected] .