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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Leading the Jewish People with a Commitment to Justice

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on January 8, 2010)
Topics: Leadership, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Sefer Shemot, Shemot, Torah

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“And it was during those days that Moshe grew up and he went out to his brothers, and he saw in their travails.” Thus begins Moshe’s emergence from the house of Pharaoh and his setting himself on the path that would lead to becoming the leader of the Jewish People, our Lawgiver and Teacher. How did this career start, and how did Moshe merit to be the leader and protector of the Jewish People?

Certainly, Moshe’s passionate and unflinching commitment to justice was key. Moshe could not tolerate to see the injustice of a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, so he rises in defense of the defenseless, and smites the Egyptian dead. As the ensuing narrative makes clear, his action was not motivated only out of a sense of solidarity with his people and protecting them from an outside oppressor, for on the next day, he defends one Hebrew from an unjust beating from another Hebrew. To get between two Jews who are fighting could only be done by someone who is committed to the cause of justice, in total disregard to their own self-interest. For while protecting one’s people from outside oppression will win one the respect and gratitude of one’s people, defending one Jew against another will undoubtedly earn one criticism, attack, and opprobrium. And, such indeed was what happened to Moshe, to the point that he had to run away from his own people, and run to a foreign land, where he encounters the daughters of Yitro. And it is in this third encounter that we see how far his commitment to justice extends. For when Yitro’ s daughters are mistreated by the shepherds, Moshe once again rises up and defends them. Moshe’s commitment to justice is so great that he is driven to defend anyone who is oppressed, be that person from his own people, or be that person a total stranger and foreigner.

However, such a commitment to justice does not, by itself, merit one the role of being a leader for the Jewish People. Such a person might be a tremendous defender of human rights in the larger world, and a fighter for universalist causes, such a person might indeed be a true leader, but nevertheless fail to be a Jewish leader. “An Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds,” is the report of the daughters of Yitro. There was nothing in Moshe’s actions or in the way he presented himself that made him recognizable as a Hebrew. In that act, he may just as well have been an Egyptian man committed to the universal principle of justice. For Moshe to become the Jewish leader that he would ultimately become, he had to go back to what initially drove him out of Pharaoh’s house, what drove him to enter the public arena: “And Moshe went back to Yitro his father-in-law, and he said, let me go, please, and return to my brothers in Egypt and see if they are still living…” He once again connected with his responsibility to his fellow Jews, to go out to where his brothers were, and to see in their plight and in their suffering.

A commitment to the universal principle of justice is necessary. If one is only committed to the betterment of one’s own people and not to the principle of justice, then one will tolerate injustice for the sake of “the greater good,” one will refuse to get involved when there are fights between his own people, and one will not, ultimately, embody a true Jewish leadership, which is to realize justice for all people and for the entire world. However, if one is committed only to justice, then one is not a Jewish leader. To be a Jewish leader, one must be driven to serve the Jewish People, must be driven by a desire and ability to see in their suffering, their travails, and their plights, and must be driven by a deep and unwavering commitment to them, to protect them from harm, to seek their betterment, to teach them, to guide them and to lead them.

And, being a leader, being a Jewish leader, is not just about abstract principles. It is not just about “justice” or “the Jewish people.” It is about the care and concern for each and every individual. There are many so-called leaders who are passionately committed to causes, but who in their pursuit of such causes are disdainful and abusing of all the individual people around them. And there are so-called leaders who will say, “I love Klal Yisrael, it’s individual Jews that I can’t stand.” A commitment to abstractions is not what makes a true Jewish leader. It is when those abstract principles are wedded to a deep care, sensitivity, and obligation to each and every person.

“And Moshe was tending the flock of Yitro his father-in-law….” Our Rabbis said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Yitro in the wilderness, a little kid goat escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared to view a pool of water and the kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: ‘I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary.’ So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away. Thereupon God said: ‘ Because you had mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, thou will assuredly tend my flock Israel.’ Hence, now “Moses was tending the flock.” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)

If we start with an unflinching commitment to justice, we are on the path to become leaders of the Jewish people. But it is only when this commitment is driven by a profound and passionate obligation to our own people, and only when this commitment to an abstract principle is wedded to the care, compassion, and concern for every individual, with all of his or her finitude and shortcomings, it is only then that will we be able to be leaders for each Jewish person, and ultimately for the entire Jewish people.