Parshat Shmot: The leader and his internal appearance

A leader of the Jewish nation is not meant to stand out as having an impressive external appearance, but rather a significant internal appearance.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Shabbat we begin reading about the central story of the entire Torah – the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Until now, we read in the Book of Genesis about the beginning of the history of the Jewish nation: Creation; the three forefathers – Avraham, Isaac, Jacob; the sale of Joseph; Jacob’s descent into Egypt with his family. However, from Parshat Shmot and on we will read about being in Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt, and the 40-year journey that the nation took until its entrance to the Land of Israel. This period, which we begin reading about already in this Torah portion, shaped the Jewish people. This is the story which lights our path to this very day.
There was one special man who was active throughout those years who led the nation: Moshe Rabbeinu.
We will be reading about him in this portion as well, and his image will accompany us through to the end of the five books of the Torah which conclude with Moshe Rabbeinu’s death.
There is so much that can be written about the unique and incredible character of Moshe Rabbeinu, but we will focus now on a dialogue he had with G-d during his last moments as a private individual, before he took on the burden of leadership and began his public service with the Jewish nation.
Moshe lived in the land of Midian and worked as a shepherd there in those days when he was privileged to experience a revelation in which G-d instructed him to return to Egypt and lead the nation out of it. In Moshe’s eyes, this directive was completely illogical, and he even tried to get out of following it. He explained his reason for refusing well: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words... for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.’” (Exodus 4:10) Seemingly, Moshe used a winning argument. Rhetorical and oral skills are, obviously, crucial skills for any leader. How could Moshe lead the nation, represent it to Pharaoh the King of Egypt and liberate the nation from slavery if he has a speech impairment and cannot express himself properly? As this interesting dialogue continues, we also read G-d’s response to Moshe: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man a mouth, or who makes [one] dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.’” (Exodus 4:11-12) We should note: G-d does not promise to cure Moshe’s speech impediment as we might have expected. Rather, G-d offers a rational, matter-of-fact counter-argument: “Who provides you with the ability to speak,” G-d asks Moshe rhetorically. “Who gives man the ability to speak, hear, or see? I, G-d, give these abilities. Therefore, you should not worry. You will obey and go to Egypt and liberate the nation. I will take care of the rest.”
With these words, the Torah clearly expresses the true character traits necessary for leaders of the nation. It is not great rhetorical skills that will help a person succeed in leading Am Yisrael. The gift of self-expression is not a necessary component in the skill set of national leaders.
For a leader who is meant to represent the nation, externally and internally, expressive ability is no more than an impressive external trait that occasionally has the power to cover for an internal void. That is not what sets apart the leader of the Jewish nation.
The Jewish nation that appeared on the stage of history thousands of years ago did not begin as a nation with an impressive external appearance. On the contrary, for long periods, the Jewish people lacked military and political abilities. However, since its inception, the Jewish nation has represented a huge world of moral and just values, values which the entire world learned, some more and some less, and spread to cultures everywhere.
For example, the commandment of resting on Shabbat. Thousands of years ago, various cultures, such as the Greek and Roman, saw resting on Shabbat as an expression of laziness which negates the existential interests of man and of society. Slowly, the idea of a day of rest spread to the entire world, and today everyone understands that a weekly day of rest is a basic right of every person.
A leader of the Jewish nation is not meant to stand out as having an impressive external appearance, but rather a significant internal appearance that also expresses the special characteristics of Jewish culture. Moshe Rabbeinu, the nation’s first leader, was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” and with this he signaled for us the correct path and the worthy considerations which should guide us as we choose our nation’s leadership.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.