Moshe Rabbeinu is often heralded as the greatest leader the Jewish people had ever and will ever have. However, in the Parashiyot leading up to Parashat BeShalach, Moshe does not seem to be an outstanding leader. When Hashem reveals to him that he will lead Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim, Moshe responds, “Mi Ani Ki Eileich El Paroh,” “Who am I that I should go to Paroh?” (Shemot 3:11). This may be a demonstration of Moshe’s legendary humility, but what kind of leader shies away from an opportunity to take his people out of slavery to freedom?
Of course, Moshe eventually does accept his role as leader of the Jewish nation, but he acts more as an intermediary between Hashem and the people than as an actual leader. Hashem commands Moshe to do something, such as stretching his hands out, and then Hashem does the related action, like striking the Mitzrim with a plague. When Paroh has a change of heart and decides to chase after Bnei Yisrael, the Jews panic. Moshe tries to calm them, but even then he defers to Hashem in telling Bnei Yisrael, “Hityatzevu URe’u Et Yeshuat Hashem Asher Ya’aseh Lachem HaYom,” “Stand fast and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today” (14:13). Hashem immediately reprimands Moshe, “Mah Titzak Eilai Dabeir El Bnei Yisrael VeYisa’u,” “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and they will journey forth!” (14:15). Hashem appears bothered that Moshe is calling out to him. Moshe does, however, have a valid concern for the safety of the people, so why is Hashem angry? It seems that Hashem is angry because instead of taking control of the situation himself, Moshe merely says that God will take care of it.
This pattern of behavior continues throughout most of the Parashah. Bnei Yisrael complain because the water available is too bitter to drink; Moshe cries out to Hashem, and He provides a remedy. They complain about the lack of food in the wilderness, and here, the Torah doesn’t even record an initial response by Moshe! Instead, all that is recorded is that Hashem tells Moshe that he will provide Mon and that Moshe relays this to the people. In his introduction to the giving of the Mon, Moshe reprimands the people for their complaints, and says that their complaints are not against Aharon and him, but only against Hashem. Again, Moshe is acting as if he has no prominent role on his own, as if it is really only Hashem who is in charge.
Next, Bnei Yisrael complain once again about water, this time because of its total absence. However, instead of taking offense only on behalf of God, Moshe this time responds, “Mah Terivun Imadi Mah Tenasun Et Hashem,” “Why do you contend with me? Why do you test Hashem?” (17:2). This is the first occasion that Moshe establishes his relationship with the people to be something other than his being merely a puppet of God. He is personally hurt by their complaints; he is not upset just that they questioned God, but also that they constantly complain to him. Moshe finally takes a leadership position and establishes for himself a position of authority among the people. This certainly is not the easy thing for Moshe to do, and he almost pays dearly for it, having to resort to crying out to Hashem to give Bnei Yisrael water so they do not kill him.
Moshe’s maturation continues at his next challenge, the attack of Amaleik. Without even consulting Hashem, Moshe takes control of the situation, commanding Yehoshua to gather troops and going to the top of a nearby hill with his staff. The Torah tells us that during the battle, whenever Moshe would raise his hands, Bnei Yisrael would have the advantage, but whenever his hands would be down, Bnei Yisrael would be losing. Eventually, Bnei Yisrael win the battle against Amaleik.
How does Moshe know that this strategy will work? He knows that whenever Hashem wanted him to perform a miracle, He would have Moshe stretch out his hands with his staff, and then the miracle would occur. Moshe learned and tries to follow what Hashem had told him in the past in order to take control of the present situation. His intuition serves him and his people well, and because of it, they defeat Amaleik at Refidim.
We can learn many lessons from observing Moshe’s transformation into a great leader. We can learn to take initiative during an unsure time, yet always to base our decisions upon Hashem. It is no surprise that the next big event after Moshe’s display of leadership is the giving of the Torah itself to Moshe. Only after he handles a situation completely on his own is Moshe ready to receive the Torah, for in order to truly follow the Torah, one must not only do exactly as it says, but use it as a guiding light for unknown situations.