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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Social Justice and Jewish Leadership

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 5, 2016)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Tzedakah & Social Justice

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Two major figures in the Torah – Moshe and Avraham – act in ways to protect others who are being oppressed, even those who are not their own people.  In this way, that can serve as a model for a religious leadership that incorporates a vision of a universalist social justice. We look at these two stories to gain insight as to what motivated these leaders to act in this way, and to the lasting message that these stories might have for us.



The first story of Moshe’s life as an adult is how he acted to defend those who were being oppressed.

Look at the story below from Shemot {source ‎1}.  What is the first significant act – from the perspective of leadership and social justice – that Moshe takes?  What motivates Moshe to intervene and protect the Israelite being beaten?  

Notice how in these 7 verses, Moshe intervenes 3 times.  What progression do you note from one intervention to the next?  Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor?

  1. Shemot 2:11-17   |   שמות פרק ב:י”א-י”ז
(יא) וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו:

(יב) וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל:

(יג) וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ:

(יד) וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר:

(טו) וַיִּשְׁמַע פַּרְעֹה אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וַיְבַקֵּשׁ לַהֲרֹג אֶת מֹשֶׁה וַיִּבְרַח מֹשֶׁה מִפְּנֵי פַרְעֹה וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ  מִדְיָן וַיֵּשֶׁב עַל הַבְּאֵר:

(טז) וּלְכֹהֵן מִדְיָן שֶׁבַע בָּנוֹת וַתָּבֹאנָה וַתִּדְלֶנָה וַתְּמַלֶּאנָה אֶת הָרְהָטִים לְהַשְׁקוֹת צֹאן אֲבִיהֶן:

(יז) וַיָּבֹאוּ הָרֹעִים וַיְגָרְשׁוּם וַיָּקָם מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹשִׁעָן וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאנָם:

11. And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers.

12. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

13. And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews struggled together; and he said to the one who did the wrong, Why do you strike your fellow?

14. And he said, Who made you a prince and a judge over us? do you intend to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Certainly this thing is known.

15. And when Pharaoh heard this matter, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.

16. And the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.

17. And the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.

The most important act that Moshe performs as he begins his life as a future leader comes before he acts to protect the Israelite who is being beaten.  It is the act of leaving his house, of choosing to leave the comfort of the palace of Pharoah and to see the suffering of others.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge we have today – we know intellectually that there are people suffering in the world, but are we able to leave our life of comfort and to “go out to our brothers” – to actually go and experience first-hand the suffering and privation of others?

What draws Moshe out of his house is not an abstract sense of suffering in the world.  It is rather “and he went out to his brothers.”  There is a kinship and a connectedness that he shares with those others.  He in some way identifies with them, and this is what draws him to leave his protective cocoon, to care about them, and to go out and see directly what their travails and hardships.

There is an important lesson here.  It is hard to be passionately driven by a universalist social justice.  Most people need to feel a sense of connection to motivate them to care.  Sometimes this sense of connection can be forged by virtue of seeing and experiencing the suffering of others.  But sometimes it is needed to come first, in order to push us to go out and see that suffering, and then to continue to push us to do something about it.

Moshe first goes out to see his brothers, and indeed sees them being oppressed and beaten.  Note that the Torah here again used the word “his brother” – “he saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew, of his brothers.”  The message is clear, he acts to protect his own from an outside oppressor.  [An interesting question was whether this response was the most appropriate and helpful.  Was the Israelite’s life at risk?  Was he reacting out of anger?  Would this be of any help in addressing the systemic problems?  – All good questions to ask from a social justice perspective.]

The greatness of Moshe is that while what first motivated him was the connection to his brothers, and he first acted to protect his own, his life as a leader and defender of justice did not stop there.  The next story progresses from protecting one’s own against an outside oppressor, to intervening to protect an innocent Hebrew being unjustly beaten by another Hebrew.  He stands for justice, so he will act to stop the oppressor, even if he be one of his own brothers.  Of course, that doesn’t go so well.  If you protect your own against outsiders, your people will love you.  Once you intervene in intra-communal disputes, you will be driven from town.

Moshe then runs to Midian, and again he acts to protect the innocent.  Here, in this third, he is no longer protecting his own against an outsider, or even his own against his own, but an outsiders against another outsider.  The message is clear – Moshe refuses to countenance injustice, regardless of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.

[It is worth noting how the way he intervened and responded progressed as well.  In the first story, he acted violently, killing the Egyptian.  In the second story, he tried to use his words, and talk reason to the oppressor, with no success.  In the third story, he acted without using violence, both saving those who were being oppressed, and acting concretely to help them in a proactive way – he watered their sheep.  The next step after protesting the oppression, is to contribute constructively to better people’s lives, and hopefully to find a way to act to make lasting change.]

The Torah is showing us in these three stories why Moshe was chosen to be the leader to take the Israelites out of Egypt. Had he just acted to protect his own, he could have been a leader who could save his people, but not a leader who would represent justice.  A leader who only cares about his own, can bring about massage violence and harm to others in the pursuit of saving and protecting his own.  On the other hand, had he only cared about abstract, universalist justice, he would not have been a leader of his people, he would have had no connection to them, and there would have been nothing to motivate the people to follow his leadership.  It was only because his career began and ended with caring for his brothers, and was at the same time propelled by the demand for justice and the refusal to countenance oppression and injustice,that he was chosen as the leader of his people.



We now go back in Biblical time to look at the story of Avraham intervening with God to protect the people of Sodom.  Here again we find a hero who refuses to countenance what appears to be an act of injustice, although it is being perpetrated against others to whom he shares no kinship.

In the following selection from Breishit {source ‎2}, notice how before God declares that God will destroy Sodom, and before Avraham steps forward to argue with God, the Torah tells us why God has chosen to let Avraham know what God is planning.  What do you think is the purpose of this introduction?  Does it give us any hint as to what motivated Avraham to intervene on behalf of these people who were not his own?

2. Breishit, 18:17-20  |   בראשית פרק יח:י”ז-כ

(יז) וַה’ אָמָר הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה:

(יח) וְאַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ:

(יט) כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה’ עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו:

(כ) וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד:

17. And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do;

18. Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

19. For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him.

20. And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous;

The function of these verses in this place in the Torah is unclear.  It is nice to read about Avraham’s greatness and how God will reward him, but how is that connected specifically to the story of Sodom and Amorah?

See how Rashi interprets the verse {source ‎3}.  Rashi’s purpose here is to explain what the function of this introduction is to the story of Sodom.  However, in the process of doing so, Rashi touches on some factors that might have led Avraham to intervene.  What are those factors?  How would you frame the nature of this motivation – is it other-directed or self-serving?

3. Rashi, Breishit 18:17   |   רש”י שם

אשר אני עושה – בסדום, לא יפה לי לעשות דבר זה שלא מדעתו, אני נתתי לו את הארץ הזאת, וחמשה כרכין הללו שלו הן, שנאמר (י יט) גבול הכנעני מצידון וגו’ בואכה סדומה ועמורה וגו’. קראתי אותו אברהם, אב המון גוים, ואשמיד את הבנים ולא אודיע לאב שהוא אוהבי:That which I will do – in Sodom.  It is not appropriate for me to do this thing without informing him.  I have given him this land, and these five cities belong to him, as it says, “The border of Canan is from Zidon… going to Sodom and Amorah” (Gen. 10:19).  I have called him Avraham, the Father of many nations, and I should destroy the children and not inform the father who is my beloved?!

According to Rashi, the reason to inform Avraham – and, presumably, the reason for Avraham to come to the defense of the people of Sodom, was because his interests would be hurt as a result.  His property, his future cities, with all their wealth and human resources would be destroyed.   If we were to translate this into Rabbinic terms, the reason to be concerned for non-Jews is mipnei darkhei shalom, because of ways of peace.  Enlightened self-interest tells us that if we are good to those around us, they will be good to us as well.  Ultimately, however, it is our own self-interest which is the motivator.  The last line in Rashi, which identifies the Sodomites as Avraham’s children, points to another explanation, to which we will return briefly.


Ramban also offers an explanation as to the purpose of this introduction {source ‎4}.  What emerges from Ramban as a possible motivator for Avraham’s intervention?

4.   Ramban, Breishit 18:17   |   רמב”ן שם

ואברהם היו יהיה  …ופשוטו של מקרא וכי ממנו אני מעלים, והלא חביב לפני להיות לגוי עצום. לשון רש”י. והנכון, כי השם יתברך דבר בכבוד אברהם. אמר, הנה הוא עתיד להיות לגוי גדול ועצום, ויהיה זכרו בזרעו ובכל גויי הארץ לברכה, לכן לא אכסה ממנו, כי יאמרו הדורות הבאים, איך כיסה ממנו, או איך נתאכזר הצדיק על שכיניו החונים עליו ולא ריחם ולא התפלל עליהם כלל:And Avraham will surely be… “The simple sense of this verse is thus: Will I hide from Avraham this thing?! Behold, he is beloved to me, that I will make him a mighty nation” – these are the words of Rashi.  But the correct explanation is that God spoke regarding Avraham’s honor.  He said: Behold he will in the future be a great and mighty nation, and his memory will be among his seed and all the nations of the land for a blessing, therefore I will not hide this from him.  For [were I to hide it], future generations will say – How did God conceal this from him?! or How did this righteous man act so cruely regarding his neighbors who lived next to him, and he did not have compassion or pray for them at all?!

While Ramban mentions that it would be cruel to stand idly by and not come to the defense of these people, it does not seem like it is a general morality that is compelling Avraham to intervene.  The primary concern here is what others will say:  “Future generations will say…”.  How will his perceived inaction impact how people perceive who Avraham was and the God that Avraham represents.  Put in Rabbinic terms, this is the concern of hilul HaShem, how our actions might lead to people thinking ill of the Jews or ill of God’s Torah and God’s people.  It is, again, not problematic in itself, but problematic in terms of the perception that it creates.


These two reasons – of Rashi and Ramban – do not speak of an intrinsic universalist ethos.  However, Let us return to the final comment of  Rashi: “I have called him Avraham, the Father of many nations, and I should destroy the children and not inform the father who is my beloved?!”


According to this explanation, all people are ultimately one, and therefore we have a responsibility towards all people.  Rashi, however, falls short of a true universalist ethos, because he is not saying that we are all descendant from Adam, and hence that we are all one, but rather that all people are part of Avraham’s family – that is, all people are part of the extended Jewish family.  Nevertheless, this framing is an important one for a principle of a universalist ethos of social justice – we must act to protect all people, for we are all part of one large family.


I believe that the best explanation of that opening passage {source ‎2}, and hence the best explanation of what motivated Avraham, lies elsewhere.  Look at the next verses in Breishit, the opening of Avraham’s arguing with God to save Sodom {source ‎5}.  On what basis does Avraham tell God that it would be wrong to wipe out Sodom?  Does he refer to a general sense of morality or to something else?  How does this echo the opening passage to this story?

5. Genesis, 18:20-23   |   בראשית פרק יח:כ”ג-כ”ה

(כג) וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע:
(כד) אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:
(כה) חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט:
23. And Abraham drew near, and said, Will Thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

24. Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: will Thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?

25. Far be it from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, far be it from Thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

If we return to the opening passage we will see that the key words in those introductory verses are that tzedakkah u’mishpat – righteousness and justice. “… and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment.” (verse 19).  When Avraham challenges God, he proclaims that the tzaddik, the righteous, should not br destroyed with the wicked.  In these verses, the key word, mishpat, is repeated over and over “Will the Judge of the whole earth not act justly?!” (Breishit 18:25).   Avraham does not challenge God based on some universal ethics; he challenges God to be true to who God is.  If God is the judge, and God represents justice, than God must act in a just way.  God is being challenges to be true to what God represents, to be true to derekh Hashem.


The point of the opening section is thus quite clear.  The Torah tells us that Avraham embodies derekh Hashem, the path of God; this is what he stands for and this is what he will teach his children.  And this derekh Hashem is to do tzedakkah u’mishpat.  This justice, it is clear from the following verses, demands that innocent people should not suffer for sins that they did not commit.  Now, if that is what Avraham represents to the world, and the message that he has to pass down to his children, then it is necessary that he be given an opportunity to defend that principle in the destruction of Sodom.  If God would not inform Avraham, and Avraham would not rise to their defense, people would either believe that God did not inform Avraham and that God’s act was not in keeping with tzedakkah u’mishpat, or that Avraham was informed and did not truly represent this principle.  By informing Avraham, and by letting him challenge God on the basis of this principle, and by God nevertheless finding it just to destroy Sodom, it was clear that God’s actions were just and that Avraham was a faithful representative of this principle.


The message for us is a profound one.  We are told many times in the Torah to follow in the path of God, and this is understood as a Biblical mitzvah {source ‎6}.  However, the Torah never states what constitutes that derekh Hashem except once – here in our story of Sodom and Amorah.

6. Rambam’s Book of Mitzvot, Mitzvah 8

להדמות בדרכיו הטובים והישרים שנ’ והלכת בדרכיו. That we are commanded to imitate God’s ways, which are good and upright, as it says. ‘You shall walk in God’s way.”

This story teaches us that the derekh Hashem is to do tzedakkah u’mishpat, and that righteousness and justice demand that we refuse to tolerate injustice, that we must protect those who are oppressed, regardless of race, nationality or religion.  If one believes in justice, and in justice as a Divine trait, as the way of God, then justice must be given to all equally.  If one wants to be like God, then one must always act to protect those who are oppressed, those who are the victims of injustice.

We also learn from this story tha tnot only is following derekh Hashem a mitzvah, but it is the prime teaching that Avraham had to bring to the world, and it was the prime teaching that he had to pass down to his children.  In fact, there is one word in that passage that may indicate even more.  The verse states that God said, ki yi’dativ, for I have known him, that he will teach this path to his children.  On this reading, it is stating the simple fact that God knows that this is how Avraham will act.  But that word – to know – can also have the meaning of being intimate with.  The verse might better be interpreted, “for I have chosen him, so that he may teach his children…”.  JPS in fact translates: “For I have singled him out…”.  If so, the verse is telling us that the entire reason that Avraham was chosen was to teach this path to his children, to teach his future descendants to live a life guided by tzedakkah u’mishpat.




We have seen that both Moshe and Avraham were motivatd by a refusal to tolerate injustice, by an insistence on derekh Hashem, on a world guided by justice and righteousness.  However, there are limits to this model.  First of all, Avraham and Moshe only acted when they confronted injustice.  This model does not clearly propel a person to go out into the world and to make the world a better place (remember that Moshe only “went out” because of his connection to his brothers.).

Secondly, we should remember that not all suffering is due to injustice.  Not all those in need are being oppressed. The fact that many people are without health care, clean water, decent education, or a stable home life, can, it is true, be seen as an injustice perpetrated by society.   But we do not necessarily view these problems through that lens, nor would we want to always frame our helping of others as standing up to injustice.  Moreover, there is plenty of suffering that is no one’s fault.  

Finally, we must remember that together with this universalist mandate is also a greater responsibility to those closest to us, as we have seen with Moshe, and as we explore in other lectures. But while it is true that in the helping of others we must prioritize those who are closest to us, we must never forget that when we see others suffering, we must act.  This is derekh Hashem, this is the way of God, this is part of what being a religious leader is all about.