When a Leader Must Stand Alone

This sheet on Exodus 5 was written by Avidan Freedman for 929 and can also be found here

So deeply does Moses internalize God's message of accountability to the people from the last chapter that he actually takes God to task at the end of chapter 5 for being the cause of their suffering. But here the Torah is sounding an important note of counterbalance to that message.

As the chapter opens, Rashi points out that Moses and Aaron, who had been surrounded by all of the community elders, now walk alone to stand before Pharaoh. This, too, is a necessary element of leadership. Being too sensitive to the people's pain can lead to a loss of priorities. The immediacy of suffering blurs long-distance vision, focusing one's sight short-range, on the fastest, most direct way to stop it. This attitude is exactly what every despot is aiming at and counting on.

"Why should Moses and Aaron disturb the people from their work? Go back to your suffering!"

Why capitulate to Pharaoh? Because at a certain point of exhaustion, the pain is so great that Pharaoh's solution becomes a twisted kind of win-win. Everyone gets what they want- we stop hurting, and Pharaoh gets his slaves.

This voice of exhaustion can be heard in the throats of good, normal, people who just want to live good lives, in the midst of every extended conflict. And it can be heard from the great leaders who most deeply feel the pain of their people, as do the Jewish officers in Egypt who are beaten defending Jewish slaves.
There will come a time when their sacrifice will be rewarded and their brand of leadership will be needed. But when the conditions for peace and quiet are defined by an oppressive leader, giving in to those conditions is in reality serving him, not serving the people. This is the point at which a leader needs to be willing to stand alone, even against his own people, on their behalf.

(ב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה וְגַ֥ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ׃
(2) But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.”

Rabbi Avidan Freedman is the Rabbi of Hevruta, the Shalom Hartman Institute's post high school program for Israelis and North Americans, and an educator in the institute's high school.

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