The Makings of a Jewish Leader
In this week’s parsha we are introduced to the most central figure in all
of Jewish history - even in all civilized history, our teacher Moshe. The
Torah, as is its wont, does not tell us many details about the life of Moshe
from the time he was just past twenty years of age, fleeing from Pharaoh’s
wrath at his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster, until his reemergence as the
leader of the enslaved Jewish people when he is already eighty years of age.
Legend has Moshe serving as a king of an African nation during this period
of time. The Torah only relates to us how he chanced across the daughters of
Yitro, saved them from the persecution of their fellow – but male –
shepherds, eventually married one of them, Zipporah, and remained in the
employ of his father-in-law, Yitro.
On the surface, at least, this is not much of a resume’ for the greatest
prophet, leader and lawgiver in all of human history. Yet strangely enough
this is a template that repeats itself in Jewish history. We are taught:
“Man sees only superficially with one’s eyes while the Lord sees to the true
heart and abilities of the person.”
The great King David, the messianic forbearer of Jewish and human destiny,
was overlooked even by the prophet Samuel as being worthy of founding the
house of Jewish royalty. All of Jewish history, in fact all of human
history, is nothing more than a collection of ironies, seeming coincidences
and unexpected choices and events. All human history is truly a province of
God’s inscrutable will.
The Torah apparently does not desire leaders of Israel who had perfect
backgrounds. The Talmud pithily teaches us that no one should be appointed
as a public official unless he carries with him on his shoulders “a box of
In our raucous world of Israeli politics, this adage is many times to an
extreme of observance. Nevertheless it is obvious that great leaders may
emerge from strange places and backgrounds. In our own times great leaders
and teachers of the Torah community gained prominence and influence even
though they did not come from the normal yeshiva world track. Some were
literally anonymous figures until their greatness in Torah and leadership
somehow emerged in public view.
Background, yichus, family pedigree, education and previous experience are
all certainly to be taken into account when choosing a mate, an employee, a
leader and anyone to whom great responsibilities are to be assigned. But one
should always be prepared for the unexpected in Jewish life and especially
in leadership in Jewish society.
Moshe, David, the Gaon of Vilna and many others became the unlikely leaders
of Israel through God’s grace and their own diligence, talents, charisma and
devotion to the God and the people of Israel. The rabbis again stated
correctly “The people of Israel are never bereft and widowed without
leadership.” That leadership may arise from a surprising source but it
always does arise to guide and strengthen us.
Rabbi Berel Wein