Moshe and the Fallible Leader

Sermon Notes 01/04/13 - 7th Day Pesach 5773

The Song at the Sea is prefaced by the phrase:

…they (the Israelites) trusted in the Lord and in Moshe His servant. (Shemot 14:31)

The equation of God with Moshe troubled early commentators.  The Targum Onkelos renders the verse ‘they trusted in the Lord and in the prophecy of Moshe His servant’, whereas the mediaeval commentator/grammarian Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra rereads it as ‘they trusted in the Lord and that Moshe was his servant’!  The almost complete absence of Moshe from the Haggadah is often cited as a deliberate attempt on behalf of the text’s authors to move the spotlight away from Moshe, the human intermediary in the story, and focus exclusively on God’s direct intervention in bringing about the plagues and the exodus.

Recent problems both in the rabbinic world and beyond naturally lead us to question the role of charismatic leaders and recognise the inability of their most devoted followers to accept that they may have erred.  Of course, these issues are nothing new; indeed they are as old as Moshe himself.  Let me first examine two famous, diametrically opposed visions of Moshe, both offered by Jews of rather different allegiances.

Sigmund Freud opens his final major work ‘Moses and Monotheism’ as follows:

To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people.  No consideration, however, will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.

Freud devotes his work to just that – a demolition of the traditional picture of Moses.  Briefly and scarcely doing Freud justice, Moses was an Egyptian, who strove to impose a form of pre-existing Egyptian monotheism on a fractious group of ex-slaves.  Unable to tolerate his demands, the people rebelled and murdered Moses.  Because of the heinous nature of their crime, they sublimated, but did not totally eliminate their memory of it, which has resurfaced in Jewish national angst throughout history and manifested itself obliquely in the origins of Christianity.

Of course, this narrative is utter anathema to a believing Jew.  Yet it raises important and pointed questions about how we view leaders in general and Moshe specifically.  Interestingly, Freud himself is aware of the inadequacies of his own thesis; as he says in a footnote:

When I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions, I know full well that I am exposing myself to severe criticism concerning my method and that I weaken the force of my proofs.

All of which makes one wonder why write the theory at all, given how successfully Freud undermines his own ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov proposes a view that makes the ‘tzaddik’ virtually infallible:

Every ‘tzaddik’ in the generation is an aspect of Moshe – Messiah (Likkutey Moharan I:2)

Rebbe Nachman’s writings are permeated with this and similar ideas (he clearly regarded himself as the near-perfect ‘tzaddik’), a perspective on leadership that many of us likely find deeply worrying, as it can so obviously lead to abuse by a charlatan or his followers.

So is it possible to forge some middle ground – to devise a model that produces leaders who are inspirational role models yet accountable; capable of strong, assertive leadership, yet who obviously share the frailties and is subject to the same temptations of other human beings?  Actually, one needs look no further than Moshe himself for inspiration.

At the end of Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz’s commentary to Nashim, the author cites an un-sourced, rather controversial midrash (it is missing from some editions).  Briefly, it tells the story of an Arab king who wanted to know about the character of Moshe, the great leader who had brought the Israelites from Egypt with signs and wonders.  He dispatched a painter to the Israelite camp in the desert to prepare a likeness of the great man.  When the painter returned with his work, the king gathered his experts to pass judgement on the character of Moshe; they universally agreed that he was a wicked man: arrogant, mean-spirited and angry.  The king rejected their opinion and turned on the painter, assuming that he had been incompetent.  Yet the painter insisted that he had painted Moshe accurately and that the experts must have misinterpreted his character.  Unsure who was correct, the king travelled to meet Moshe himself and determined that the painter had depicted him accurately.  The king questioned Moshe who admitted that all of the deficiencies that the experts had identified were indeed native to his character, but that through a long process of self-development, he had conquered them and transformed his personality. (Tiferet Yisrael to Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14)

This midrash offers a new perspective on Moshe and a model of sustainable leadership.  The leader is human, yet is a role model of self-development; he or she is immersed in Jewish knowledge and has developed an understanding of the world through the eyes of the Torah that can be brought to bear on individual and communal issues, yet is subject to the same lack of personal objectivity and failings as other human beings.  We should not forget that according to Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, Moshe spoke with difficulty precisely to remind the people that he was a fallible human being – not the originator of the divine message, but merely its amanuensis (Derashot HaRan 3)

Maintaining the right leadership balance is a ubiquitous problem, but one that remains central to the Jewish experience.  Ernst Sellin, who influenced Freud’s view of Moshe wrote:

The final and most important question for all research into the Israelite-Jewish religion will always remain: who was Moses? (Cited by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in ‘Freud’s Moses’)

Deciding who our Moses will be may be just as important for us.