Is a Leader Born or Created? by Solomon Shulman


In Parashat Shemot, the Pasuk states (Shemot 2:2), “VaTahar HaIshah VaTeiled Ben VaTeire Oto Ki Tov Hu,” “and the woman conceived, and she bore a son and she saw that he was good.” We see from this Pasuk that there is something good about Moshe that is already recognized at the time of his birth. However, what exactly was “good”?  Does Yocheved, his mother, recognize something intrinsic in this baby that would lead to “goodness” in the world or more specifically for the Jewish Nation? The Gemara (Sotah 12a) records the following applicable discussion: Rabbi Meir says that “Tov Shemo,” his name was “good”; Rav Yehudah says “Tovi’ah,” “he was good with God” was his name. Rav Nechemiyah says that the word “Tov” means that he was fit for prophecy. And, others say that “good” means that Moshe was born circumcised, and the Chachamim say that “good” means that when Moshe was born, “Nitmalei HaBayit Kulo Or,” the entire house was filled with light. The Beraita explains that this is a Gezeirah Shavah, a comparison of words used in Pesukim. When Moshe is born the Torah states “and she saw that it was good,” previously the Torah states (BeReishit 1:4) “and God saw that the light was good,” the common word being “Tov,” meaning “good.”

It seems from the explanation of this Pasuk that Moshe is pre-determined to have an advantage in life; yet, this notion of being born with an advantage is antithetical to the Jewish philosophy of “Hishtadlut,” human effort.  After all, what is so great about Moshe if Hashem creates him in such a way that he would almost have no choice but to fall into this leadership role? In fact, the expression, “A born leader” appears to be accurate with regard to Moshe Rabbeinu!

However, no one would be very much impressed with Moshe if his achievements were pre-ordained from the time of his birth. At the same time, we recite every day, “Lo Kam BeYisrael KeMoshe Od,” “never again will one from Bnei Yisrael like Moshe rise.” Moshe is ostensibly heralded as the greatest leader the Jewish people have had, and we should therefore examine some of the early stories to see how he grows into this leadership role.

Moshe is brought into Par’oh’s palace and the very first story (a Medrash) shows Moshe refusing to nurse from an Egyptian wet-nurse; the lips that would speak to God wound not nurse from an Egyptian women, and therefore Par’oh’s daughter needed the assistance of Moshe’s actual mother to feed Moshe.

The next story (2:11) shows Moshe growing up and going out to his brothers. Moshe sees their burden and sees an Egyptian man hitting a Jewish man. Moshe as the up-and-coming leader is unable to stand by idly, so he smites the Egyptian and kills him.

The next story to mention is that of Moshe witnessing the daughters of Yitro being mistreated by the other shepherds. Again, Moshe cannot watch such injustice, so he steps forward to save the girls.

But, Moshe is not completely righteous because not every story shows perfection. In fact, with regards to the story with Yitro’s daughters,  Moshe is identified as “an Egyptian.” Some derive from this that perhaps Moshe was trying to run away from his Jewish identity, identifying himself as an Egyptian and not as part of Am Yisrael.

Moshe and God now engage in a conversation regarding Moshe being the leader, and while Hashem instructs Moshe to return from Midyan to Egypt to save the Jewish slaves, Moshe does not want to accept the challenge. One of Moshe’s arguments is that “Lo Ish Devarim Anochi,” “[he] is not a man of words” (4:10). What does Moshe mean by this? After all, Moshe is all about words—he delivers messages nonstop throughout the next four books of the Torah, including the Aseret HaDibrot and the entire Sefer Devarim!

Perhaps Moshe recognizes that he possesses a significant character flaw, and that is his inability to use his words; hence, in the story of the Egyptian hitting the Jewish man, Moshe’s response is to kill the Egyptian rather than to retaliate with words. And later on, Moshe makes the most costly error of his life – he hits the rock instead of talking to it, and this prevents his entrance into Eretz Yisrael.

We can invoke many more stories to support our notion that on the one hand Moshe possesses special leadership qualities, and yet he also needs constant refinement to grow as a person and as a leader. And of course, we would continue to find many more that would show his amazing character as a leader.

This Monday, January 16, 2012, the United States will “celebrate” Martin Lutheer King Jr. Day. However, for many of us in the United States, with an African-American President, it is sometimes difficult to remember that in this very great country slavery was legal just 150 years ago, and only 50 years ago, blacks were subjected to injustices like not being allowed to sit in the front of the bus, were not served food in restaurants, were not allowed to swim in pools, and more.

Many leaders, including many Jewish men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer, fought for civil rights, and on this Monday we will thank them for them courage.

In fact, this is the message from the Torah. A leader is not just born a leader, but is a man of both words and actions. A leader steps forward when he sees an injustice, takes a stance, and makes a difference.

Investing in the Future by Max Shulman

The Fork in the Road by Jacob Rosenberg