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A Paradigm for Jewish Leadership

May 8, 2009 | by

Moses at the splitting of the sea teaches us the essential qualities of a Jewish leader.

Passover, April 20, 1949 -- If we carefully examine the portion of the Torah that is read in the synagogue on the seventh day of the Passover festival, we will find that it represents, among many things, an almost exhaustive treatise on the manifold relationships between the ideal leader and his people. A careful study of the text itself reveals an analysis of almost all the possible situations that may arise in the normal life of a people to test the quality and to try the endurance of its leader. From the reactions of Moses, the leader of the Jewish People, and from his responses to these different situations and complex problems, we learn the qualities essential to the Jewish leader of any era, from the exodus of Egypt until this very day.

Our biblical text recounts three problems that challenged this great leader, problems that have occurred often throughout the history of our people.


Our biblical text recounts three problems that challenged this great leader, problems that have occurred often throughout the history of our people and that foreshadowed almost all the biblical events that were to follow. First, we find a people surrounded by enemies, physically endangered, realizing that death and destruction may be at hand. At that point they cry out to their leader for guidance.

Second, we find a people after victory, losing sight of its ideal and of its goal, growing selfish and materialistic. At that point, the genuine leader must step in, elevate the people and restore them to the proper track.

Finally, we find a people merely complaining and being troublesome, grumbling, murmuring and aggravating problems. At that point the leader must demonstrate patience and unshakable faith. These episodes reflect so much of the history of our people. We can gain valuable insights if we read the story once again, carefully and deliberately.

At the very outset of our Torah reading, we find the Children of Israel pursued by the Egyptians with no alternative but to throw themselves upon the mercy of the raging sea. The reactions of the people are natural and expected: fear, disunity, mass demonstrations and hysterical pleadings -- all of them aggravating an already dire condition and making the situation even worse than it already is.

"And Pharaoh approached; and the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold! – Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened. The Children of Israel cried out to God" (Exodus 14:10).

The midrash [1] tells us that the Jewish people were divided into four camps. Some said, "Let us throw ourselves into the sea." Others said, "Let us return to Egypt." A third group argued, "Let us wage war against the Egyptians." Finally, a fourth faction advocated, "Let us pray to God."

Here, indeed, was an occasion for the leader, Moses, to prove himself. He could do so by reassuring the people and arresting their fears. He had to inject a spirit of unity and cooperation amongst the different groups that were poised against each other, endangering the life of the people perhaps as much as the pursuing Egyptians were. Furthermore, he also had to prove himself by analyzing the situation carefully and by demonstrating a realistic appreciation of the problem that confronted his people.

Let us see how Moses reacted to these problems. Even in the midst of fear, in the midst of disillusionment, in the midst of the people shouting[2]:

"They said to Moses, 'Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?'" Amidst all this came Moshe's reassuring words,[3] words of compassion and strength.

"Moses said to the people, 'Do not fear. Stand fast and see the salvation of God.'" Moses tells the people to dispel fear, gain confidence and compose themselves. He says stand together as one, united in your efforts to survive and to prevail. And with these words he injected the elements of confidence and unity, so essential in times of national distress.

Outwardly, he was decisive, confident and reassuring. But for himself, Moses withdrew into his own thoughts and analyzed with brilliance the nature of the problems and the gravity of the situation in which his people was involved. The rabbis in the midrash[4] painted a beautiful picture of Moses at that that time.

He clothed himself in his coat; he seated himself alone, withdrawn from the noise and the tumult of the masses; he began to wonder, "What will happen to them if I should take them back to Egypt?"

Surely Pharaoh and the Egyptians had no change of heart. They were the same; their hatred and their cruelty had not changed. And Moses proceeded, carefully and methodically, to delineate all his other options.

If I should take the southern route, there is the Baal Tzafon idol, the one idol that was left;

If I should take them to the north there is the barrier, built by the Egyptians and sure to block our passage;

If I should attempt to lead them to the east, the raging sea waits to consume them.

Here is the greatness of leadership; here we see the brilliance and the presence of mind of the great leader. The situation is serious enough. All roads toward physical deliverance are blocked. There is but one road open -- the one to the south. And what more should the leader consider at this moment but the physical welfare of his people? What should he think about other than how to save their lives, to deliver them from imminent physical death? But the great and genuine leader also has other considerations.

He knew that physical deliverance, if it means the absence of serving God, is senseless. And alone, wrapped in his thoughts, absorbed in his calculations, with the fate of all Israel weighing heavily upon him, and knowing that the road to the south would be popular and acceptable to the masses, he still feared: If I should take the southern route, there is the Baal Tzafon idol.


He was determined to see through the national redemption of his people without sacrificing its religious idealism and principles.


He agonized: I can save their lives; I know the opinion polls will support my decision, but if I should lead them to the south, they will come in contact with the Baal Tzafon idol and this may endanger their religious and spiritual freedom. As a genuine leader, he knew that national redemption without the religious element was indeed valueless. His faith was strong! He was determined to see through the national redemption of his people without sacrificing its religious idealism and principles.

This was a test of real leadership: to recognize the fears of a people and to dispel them; to see a divided people and to unite them; to examine realistically and yet idealistically the problems of the people -- the short-term dangers and the long-term threats. These are the characteristics of true and genuine leadership.

We read on and we come to the second episode. The victory of God came! The children of Israel were saved. They safely crossed the sea and watched as their pursuers drowned in the churning waters. But once again a natural reaction set in. It is the nature of a people, in the wake of victory, to lose sight of its ideal and to engage in a frantic race for material gains resulting from the victory.

Once again it is the responsibility of the leader to shepherd the people after the victory, to elevate them again to the degree of idealism that they had attained before they lost their directionality. Again, this is not a simple task for the leader! It is unpopular; the masses want to enjoy the immediate fruits of their victory, rather than think of the great ideal. The masses want to celebrate their success rather than make the necessary sacrifices for the realization of their great dream. This conflict again tests the perseverance and the devotion of the leader to his people and to his ideal.

Following the inspired song of Moses and the children of Israel we read that:[5] "And Moses caused Israel to journey from the Red Sea and they went out into the wilderness of Shor." The rabbis in the midrash were intrigued by the particular form of the word "vayisa" -- the transitive form of the word that means, literally, he caused them to journey. And our classic commentaries explain[6]: Moses made them travel against their will.

The midrash[7] tells us that when Pharaoh took his men and chariots to pursue the Israelites, he adorned the horses with valuable stones and diamonds. When the Egyptians were drowned, these stones were washed onto the shore.

The Children of Israel would go forth each day and gather these precious stones and they had no desire to leave the shores of the Red Sea. It was too profitable to leave these precious stones.


In the wake of victory, the people forgot about the goal.


The leader of the people was confronted by a critical problem. In the wake of victory, the people forgot about the goal of Sinai; they forgot about the promise of revealing God's Presence; they forgot about the song they had sung only recently[8]: "You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling place that You, God, have made." The people suddenly forgot about the Land of Israel; they forgot about Jerusalem. Were it not for the leadership of Moses, they would have remained there gathering precious stones indefinitely. But there are leaders who would not forget Jerusalem; there are leaders who never lose sight of Sinai and of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem.

Moses realized the danger involved in just staying at the shore of the sea.

"And he said to them: Do you think that each day you will get more stones and more wealth? How could you, because of the temporary stones and diamonds, lose sight of the great ideal of which you sang so gloriously?"

The Torah therefore tells us[9]: "And Moshe caused Israel to journey." Moshe made them travel against their will, contrary to the popular trend. He led them from the Sea of Reeds in the direction of Sinai and in the direction of Jerusalem. And this, too, is an aspect of genuine Jewish leadership: never to lose sight of the ideal and to have the ability and the perseverance to lead the people to that great ideal.

Immediately thereafter, the Torah recounts yet another episode that tried and demonstrated Moshe's leadership. The Israelites went out to the Wilderness of Shur; they traveled for a three-day period[10] "And they (the Children of Israel) did not find water." The Mekhilta[11] tells us that some of our Sages understood this to mean that, literally, they found no water. Then the Mekhilta cites an alternate opinion:

Other sages, the allegorists, say: They did not find the words of Torah, which are likened to water.

In either event, the people expressed their discontent. The Torah tells us[12]: "And the people murmured against Moshe." Again, the Mekhilta clarifies:

Rav Yehoshua says: The Israelites should first have taken counsel with the greatest one among them, saying: "What shall we drink?" But instead, they spoke words of complaint against Moshe. And as we proceed through the parasha, again we see the Israelites murmuring against Moshe. As soon as they encountered a difficulty, they tested Moshe's patience with their murmurings and complaints. But, great leader that he was, Moshe weathered the complaints and continued to lead the people.

In the course of just a few days -- momentous days, to be sure, but a very brief time period -- Moshe had, in effect, defined leadership. He:


  • Calmed the fears of the people in the face of dire external threats
  • Unified the people when they were being torn apart by in-fighting
  • Preserved their national purpose and character (though it was not the most popular course of action
  • Withstood the murmuring and complaints and stayed the course.


These are the real qualities of genuine leadership. Our greatest concern today is to develop and to train this type of idealistic leadership for our people.




[1] Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, Mesekhta de-Vayehi, Parasha 2.
[2] Exodus 14:11.
[3] Ibid. 14:13.
[4] Yalkut Shimoni, Be-Shalah, 233.

[5] Exodus 15:22.
[6] Ibid. Rashi.
[7] Yalkut Shimoni, Be-Shalah 254.
[8] Exodus 15:17.
[9] Exodus 15:22.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Be-Shalah, Mesekhta Va-Yasah, Parasha 2.
[12] Exodus 15:24.




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