Before the Reading
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opens one of his masterful collections of Torah commentaries with the following story, told about the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“We must live with the times,” the Rebbe said.
The disciples, sitting around the table, eagerly awaiting the master’s words, were perplexed. “Live with the times? Isn’t that what the enemies of faith are always saying? The past is dead – long live the future? Surely we believe the opposite, that God’s word is eternal, that certain things do not change, that values and principles and laws are constant. To be a Jew is to be beyond time. What then does the Rebbe mean when he says, We must live with the times?”
“What I mean,” said the Rebbe, “is that we must live with the parashat hashavua, the weekly portion of the Torah.”
Sacks rightly interprets the Rebbe’s words to mean that we are called to live in the tension between the repeating cycle of those ancient stories and the onward march of human history, what he calls “the fugue between those two themes, the eternal and the ephemeral, the timeless and the timely.” To put it another way, “living with the times” is the act of keeping one eye on the news and the other on the parasha. Sometimes the connection between the ancient text and our contemporary context is clear; sometimes it feels a stretch.
And then there are times like these, times when the weekly portion seems to have been written precisely for the moment in which it is being read. This Shabbat, Jews around the world read Parashat Shemot, the opening chapters of Exodus. It is a portion about transitions of power, about a new king arising. It is a portion about brave women standing up to power. It is a portion about oppression and resistance to that oppression. It is a story about action, and about the fear to act.
My own reading in the portion and in commentaries this week led me to focus on what these chapters have to say about leadership. Specifically, what in Moses’ character made him fit to lead his people from Egypt to Sinai, and beyond? Two teachers in particular caught my eye, and I thought I’d let them speak to us tonight.
Our first teacher is Yohanan Luria (ca. 1455- ca. 1511), who wrote a Torah commentary called Meshivat Nefesh, “Restoring the Soul.” Luria comments on the verse from our portion (Exod 2:11) in which Moses finds his place as a Hebrew, leaving the palace behind to “look upon the burdens” of his brothers and sisters. He begins by quoting the great commentator Rashi, who interprets the “looking” as more than visual apprehension: “He set his eyes and his heart upon them, in order that he would feel their pain.” Expanding on Rashi’s insight, Luria writes:
To be a leader is to care about the common good. A leader wants to lessen suffering. A leader cares for those who lack. Moses steps into harm’s way to stop the Egyptian from beating an Israelite, and again to stop the two Israelites from fighting. He had nothing to gain by doing so. Leaders must be empathetic, and they must selfless.
The ability to identify with another’s situation, and to act on their behalf even when one has nothing to personally gain from doing so are two qualities of leadership, identified by a wise teacher hundreds of years ago. Moses had all the privilege in the world, growing up in the palace as a son to Pharaoh’s daughter. He could have stayed in the family business and built monuments to his own glory…but he stepped out, saw the burden of his brothers and sisters, and chose a different path, the path of empathy and selflessness. What a blessing it is to be led by such a person!
Let us move forward a century or so and learn from Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz (1550-1619). His Torah commentary, called Kli Yakar (“Precious Vessel”) is widely read to this day for its careful attention to language and novel spiritual and psychological insights.
The Kli Yakar comments on the verse (Exod 3:11) in which Moses expresses reluctance to accept the mantle of leadership: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? (Who am I to ) free the Israelites?” He hears in the two related questions two distinct reflections on Moses’ character. His reluctance to appear before Pharaoh is evidence of his humility, as though he is saying “Can a lowly person like me really speak before the king?” In mentioning the Israelites, he is saying “A nation lifted up and exalted such as this one, descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, great and mighty…why would they follow someone like me?”
For the Kli Yakar, Moses’ fitness for leadership derives from his humility, and from his belief that the people he is called to lead are already great. Hearing these twin concerns, God offers a singular answer (v. 12): Ki Ehyeh Imach. “I will be with you.” Our teacher imagines the force of those words as follows:
It will not be you speaking to Pharaoh; rather, I will speak, and your mouth will be my mouth. In the same way, Israel will not be following you, but will be following after God. Since, after all, I am with you.
God anticipates Moses’ continued reluctance, and shows him evidence of the divine intent: “Do you see this tiny little mountain called Sinai? The smallest mountain of all? This is the mountain at which they will worship me. You may not believe me, Moses, but it’s true: I prefer the humble to the proud, the downtrodden to the mighty.”
And this has been the Jewish story every since. To side always with the oppressed and never with the oppressor. To welcome the stranger, not add to their alienation. To lift up humility and cast aside boastfulness.
Empathy. Selflessness. Humility. Respect for the People. As we “live with the times,” bringing our ancient stories and time-tested values to bear on the world around us, may we cultivate these traits in ourselves, and accept nothing less from our leaders.
* * *
And the LORD continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” And He said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
* * *
Prayers for our Nation
You probably know the exchange from Fiddler on the Roof:
“Is there a proper blessing… for the Tzar?”
“A blessing for the Tzar?
Of course! May God bless and keep the Tzar…far away from us!”
What you may not know is that this clever line actually hews closely to a liturgical tradition nearly four centuries old: the tradition of offering an ironic and even subversive prayer for the secular powers under which our people have lived. Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History, tells the tale of the prayer, called Hanoten Teshua’ah, “the one who grants salvation.” He writes:
The manifest language of Hanoten Teshu’ah bespeaks Jewish loyalty and faithful allegiance. It calls upon God to “bless, guard, protect, help, exalt, magnify and highly aggrandize” the king and the royal family, to grant them a long and prosperous rule, and to inspire them with benevolence “toward us and all Israel our brethren.” At the same time, the prayer’s esoteric meaning…reveals much about the mentality of Diaspora Jews subjected to countless acts of discrimination under the dominion of foreign kings. The biblical verses quoted in the prayer conceal hints of spiritual resistance, a cultural strategy well-known among those determined to maintain their self-respect in the face of religious persecution. Thus, for example, the prayer begins with a verse modified from Ps 144: I0: “You who give victory to kings, who rescue His servant David from the deadly sword.” The next line of that psalm, not included in the prayer but revealing in terms of its hidden meaning reads, “Rescue me, save me from the hands of foreigners, whose mouths speak lies, and whose oaths are false.”
Sarna surveys nearly three centuries of American Jewish prayer books, looking at the way Jews on these shores have prayed for their colonial governments and for the United States. Through our nation’s formative years, through peacetime and wartime, Hanoten Teshuah was transformed by our values and our experience. No longer do we pray that a king (or president) be exalted; rather do we pray that they be wise. In contrast to much of the world in which prayers for the government often mention leaders by name, American siddurim typically focus on the office rather than its holder.
I found Sarna’s historical treatment useful as I struggled with the question that rabbis all across the nation struggled with this week: how to prayerfully mark the inauguration of a new president. For what do we pray in a moment like this? For national unity? For the president’s success? For the marginalized and victimized? For the courage to stay true to our values? No single prayer will satisfy every worshiper. To the contrary, every approach is bound to upset someone.
Perhaps a gifted poet could wrap all of these disparate thoughts up in a tidy reading, a Hanoten Teshuah fit for hearts of all inclinations on this day of transition. I am choosing to offer something else, a practice in which I feel more confident. I’d like for us to spend a few moments in quiet reflection, and invite each of you to dedicate this time as you see fit. We’ll emerge from the silence singing Olam Chesed Yibaneh…