Parshat Shemot

By Rabbi Rochelle Robins, Vice-President and Academic Dean of the Chaplaincy and Rabbinical Schools

Transcended Thinking in the Role of Leadership

Moses’ birth occurs in Parshat Shemot. While this is his elemental and actual birth, when he comes into being in this world through the womb, he develops and transforms – is birthed so-to-speak, in a number of ways in this section of the Torah. Moses matures and learns to identify with his people – the Hebrews. He marries. Moses the shepherd meets God the Liberator at the burning bush. He doubts his leadership abilities and God reassures him. The birth of leadership is not without internal and external challenges. Here we have a biblical personage who travels from a birth where his own life is under threat, to living as royalty, then as an ordinary shepherd, to approaching the arduous tasks ahead of him. Who is he? A threatened baby? A royal prince? A questioner of the status quo? A modest herder? A liberator of a great nation? He is all of these and remains so throughout his story.

Parshat Shemot shows Moses’ faith and doubt in his life’s trajectory. He struggles to find the legitimacy within himself among the people to lead. Moses possesses faith and doubt in the immense leadership position that he holds – the daunting responsibility to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom over decades. He shows his strength, anger, tenacity, insecurity, courage, and fortitude while leading a people not only from slavery to freedom, not only from one land to another, but also from one identity and sense of self to the next; from the mentality and actions of a slave to the mentality and actions of a free being.

Kabbalistic commentator, Or HaChaim on Exodus (28:1) wrote: “…In light of our tradition (Kabbalah) that when [one] opposes God, one of the many branches of [one’s] soul becomes detached from its holy root. At the time when Moses raised repeated objections to God’s demand to accept the responsibility of leadership, one of the branches of Moses’ soul became detached from its celestial root.”

Moses, at intervals throughout the text, both objects to his leadership and demonstrates insecurity and instability in his approach to it. Many commentators accept that Moses’ objections and resistance led his brother Aaron to receive the divinely appointed role of Kohen Gadol (High Priest) over himself. Moses transcended his objections enough to lead the people but not alone. Togetherness, connection, and shared responsibility attach our spirits to collective belonging. Maybe the loss of the priesthood benefitted his soul and his functioning.

Possibly Moses never outgrew the forces of human objection, insecurity, resistance, and anger. Still, he transformed his sense of self enough to lead. Maybe someone else would have been more balanced, lacked objection to divinely inspired purpose, and would have gently handled the tablets when he witnessed people’s anxiety, fear, and doubt. However, even this more predictable leader would have been imperfect in the eyes of followers and antagonists.

Chanukah has passed. Yet we might still grapple to understand the nature of a miracle.  A simple definition of one is an event or phenomenon that transcends nature. The nature of a miracle goes against nature itself. Can the event also be internal and demonstrated through personal evolution and going against our own habitual thinking about ourselves? A positive transformative change or a shift in the way we see the world and ourselves within it contains the miraculous. Sometimes transcending our own minds is a force against what is most natural to us.

Yearning for something to shift within us to bring new insight and strength into our lives is an aspect of spiritual seeking in leadership. Moses struggles to see himself differently. Often, changing habitual thinking and behaving is nothing short of a miracle. Was Moses able to accomplish this or did he stay the same? When our own self-perceptions expand and transform, do we grow or stay the same? Lehavdil (not the same), but like Moses we are leaders vulnerable to our births, the state of the world, our regal standing, our lowly functioning, and our inspiration to liberate ourselves and others. A miracle found in transcended thinking is simply a moment in time if not sustained by the leader. We both stay the same and we grow, like Moses, our teacher.