Biblical Leaders of Diaspora Jews: Lessons in the Right Stuff

The Book of Exodus provides us with a unique opportunity to peer into our past, in the Diaspora of ancient Egypt, in order better to understand the present.

Life in ancient Egypt presented some of the same challenges we face today. It was a superpower of its time and, much like the United States, it attracted many talented people from around the world. It boasted a cosmopolitan, permissive society, steeped in art, science and the pursuit of pleasure. The Midrashic view of the Egyptian experience bears an uncanny resemblance to modern times[i]. Eighty percent or more of the Jewish people had fully assimilated into Egyptian society and never left Egypt during the miraculous redemption. It is eerily similar to the conclusions reached by the Pew study[ii] about the present state of Judaism in America[iii].

Some of the Jews in ancient Egypt were very successful. They enjoyed patronage by those in power, becoming a part of high society and the establishment[iv]. Not everyone experienced the brutal existence of being a slave in Egypt[v]. This included Dathan and Abiram, who had been wealthy government officials in Egypt[vi].

When the time came to leave, Dathan and Abiram elected to remain behind with Pharaoh[vii]. They also accompanied Pharaoh when he pursued and sought to recapture the Jews, who left Egypt in the Exodus. Yet, they somehow managed to avoid being engulfed by the Red Sea with the Egyptian army and rejoin their brethren. It is suggested this may have occurred because Pharaoh intentionally stationed them at the front of his military column, when crossing the miraculously split Red Sea. After all, why not put the collaborating Jews in harm’s way, as a shield for the Egyptian army that followed? This is reminiscent of the images of the Germans entering the Warsaw Ghetto, who similarly placed the Jewish Ghetto police in the lead. The stratagem failed, because it was only after all the Jewish people safely exited the erstwhile dry seabed that the Red Sea came crashing down on the Egyptian army pursuing them.

Notwithstanding the miracle they had just witnessed, the unrepentant Dathan and Abiram still sought to convince their brethren it was better to return to Egypt[viii]. They were not content to return alone; they wanted the Jewish people to join them. However, their rhetoric was unconvincing. They would continue to try to assert their egocentric and malign leadership[ix] until their dying day[x]. Fortunately for the Jewish people, they failed in their deceitful quest for power[xi].

The contrast between Moses and these two ne’er-do-wells could hardly be more striking. The people chose to follow Moses and embrace the message from G-d he delivered, which he somehow managed to communicate to them, despite his pronounced speech impediment. In essence, the virtue and truth of the Torah, given by G-d to Moses and presented to the Jewish people, sold itself, as G-d intended[xii]. There was no glitzy and smooth talking presentation by a charismatic spokesperson. Instead, there was Moses, a self-deprecating, humble, plain, but haltingly, spoken and authentic individual. The evolution of the people’s acceptance of Moses is most instructive.

It began when Moses was a young man[xiii]. He ventured out to see for himself the plight of his people and their suffering in bondage in Egypt[xiv]. He was a member of the royal family, as the adopted child of Bithiah, the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh[xv] and one of the power elite.

Despite his privileged status at the very pinnacle of society, at heart, he was a modest individual[xvi], who was genuinely interested in helping those in need. He didn’t just call attention to the problem and talk about it; he actually did something, by personally applying himself to the solution. He also eschewed[xvii] any recognition or reward for his heroic actions[xviii]. However, his noble efforts were derailed when he intervened to save one of his brethren, Dathan, from being killed by an Egyptian overlord[xix].

The next day Moses found Dathan violently quarreling with his brother-in-law Abiram[xx] and cautioned them not to do so. Their response was to rebuke Moses; questioning who appointed Moses to be their judge. The Midrash[xxi] and Talmud[xxii] detail the sordid treatment he received from Dathan and Abiram. Ironically, it was Dathan and Abiram who informed on Moses to Pharaoh, concerning his killing of the very Egyptian, who tried to kill Dathan. In effect, Moses was forced to flee Egypt because he benevolently saved Dathan.

Many decades[xxiii]later, G-d assigned Moses the mission of leading the Jewish people, at the miracle of the burning bush[xxiv]. Moses balked, at first, insisting he was ill-equipped to handle the task. He argued he wouldn’t be believed[xxv]; he was not a man of words[xxvi]; he was heavy of mouth and tongue[xxvii]; and he had a speech impediment[xxviii].

It is suggested he was honestly concerned about whether he was the appropriate person to lead the Jewish people[xxix]. After all, he didn’t share the same life experience or challenges that they did. Why would they listen to him and follow him? He might also have been worried about whether he could credibly represent the Jewish people. This is in striking contrast to Dathan and Abiram, who, much like so many demagogues since, were absolutely convinced of their own suitability and were willing to use any means, including deceit, to achieve their ends.

Despite Moses’ self-effecting nature, misgivings and concerns, when called upon to serve, he did so with verve, courage, heart and intelligence. He mustered all his energy and skill to protect the Jewish people. Consider just a few of his heroic exploits on behalf of the Jewish people and in the face of certain danger. There was his daring advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people before Pharaoh, his advisors and the ruling class of Egypt[xxx]. Pharaoh was so frustrated by Moses’ entreaties, threats and G-d’s plagues that he told Moses not to return to his presence, upon pain of death[xxxi]. Nonetheless, Moses persevered, G-d intervened and the children of Israel were freed and left Egypt in the miraculous Exodus.

The challenges, though, did not end and Moses did not give up on the people of Israel. He defended them before G-d on numerous occasions. There was the sin of the Golden Calf[xxxii], when Moses went to bat for the Jewish people and managed to assuage G-d’s wrath. In a demonstration of why his leadership was so extraordinary, he selflessly offered that if G-d would not forgive the Jewish people, then G-d might as well delete him from the Torah too[xxxiii]. He determined to share the fate of his charge, no matter the circumstances and consequences. There was also the sin of the Spies[xxxiv]. Once again Moses successfully advocated for the Jewish people before G-d. Most poignantly, he demurred when G-d offered to spare him alone and recreate a bigger and better Jewish nation through him[xxxv]. In the process, Moses gave voice to the formula of prayer[xxxvi] we use to this day on Yom Kippur and fast days, to evoke divine forbearance and forgiveness.

Moses was also a martial leader who personally took the fight to the enemy. There was the battle with Amalek at Rephidim[xxxvii], where his almost superhuman efforts[xxxviii] at keeping his hands raised instilled a fighting spirit, cohesiveness and morale that won the day[xxxix]. As the Talmud[xl] notes, he suffered the same pain and anguish of battle and shared the fate as his people. It was a testament to his personality and leadership qualities. If Israel was suffering then he too suffered together with them[xli]. Among his last acts were his victories over Sichon[xlii] and his kingdom of Amorites and the giant Og[xliii] and his kingdom of Bashan. The Midrash[xliv] notes, it was Moses who personally dispatched Sichon and Og.

An unpretentious and divinely inspired defender of his people, Moses was an outstanding leader of Diaspora Jewry. He led the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt and unselfishly guided them until the penultimate moment before their entry into the promised land of Israel. G-d informed Moses he would not enter the land of Israel with them and would shortly pass on[xlv]. Even then, his concern was for the welfare of the Jewish people, not his own[xlvi]. He might have justifiably felt otherwise, because of all the abuse he had taken over all those years as the leader of the Jewish people[xlvii]; but he didn’t. He did not allow his personal situation to get in the way of his mission. Thus, he beseeched G-d to assure they have an appropriate leader after he was gone[xlviii]. He also implored G-d at least to let him see the land[xlix] and was allowed to do so from afar. His final act, prior to passing on, was to see and, as a result, rejoice in the fact that the Jewish people, he so devotedly led, would be able to live and prosper in the wonderful and beautiful land of Israel[l]. Moses’ love of the Jewish people[li] and his capacity to care for them[lii] were among his many outstanding characteristics. Moses is the exemplar of a righteous leader, who abandons all thought of his own affairs when he departs the world and is occupied only with the affairs of the community[liii].

Dathan and Abiram, on the other hand, were not humble, divinely inspired or defenders of the Jewish people. They had no qualms about asserting their flawed leadership[liv] to favor their personal interests and promote their own selfish agenda[lv]. They were opposed to leaving Egypt and stridently voiced their dissent against anyone leaving. In their protected positions, for the most part[lvi] disconnected from the fate of their brethren, they were unconcerned with the slavery, oppression and constant danger of loss of life or limb faced by their brethren. Dathan and Abiram didn’t seek truth[lvii], they only sought personal advancement[lviii]. They were just demagogues, expediently seeking power to further their own personal interests[lix], by spouting whatever deceitful rhetoric accomplished their nefarious purposes. Moreover, they did so by aligning themselves with enemies of the Jewish people in Egypt, as noted above.

The wisdom encapsulated in these Biblical tales alluding to what is the right stuff for Jewish Diaspora leadership is most cogent and timely. We are in the midst of the elections for the leadership of the World Zionist Congress. It is a venerable organization that brings together the pro-Israel community outside of Israel with representatives from Israel.

There are those, however, who are attempting to accomplish what amounts to a hostile-takeover of this staid Israel booster organization in order to promote their own agenda. Their resume appears to include proficiency in voicing strident anti-Israel harangues and opposing and seeking to undermine the policies of the duly elected government of Israel, even if that causes harm to Israel[lx]. How else to explain their otherwise inexplicable flirtation with aspects of BDS and, in some cases, even outright support of the pro-boycott resolution sponsored by Omar and Tlaib in the US Congress[lxi]? They taut an avowed interest in promoting a two-state solution; yet, they don’t strongly condemn Tlaib, despite her outright rejection of a two-state solution[lxii]. Her recent re-tweet of a blood libel against Israel[lxiii] is only the latest example of her vendetta against Israel. They also condone Omar’s opposition to the recent Democratic sponsored bi-partisan resolution in support of a two-state solution[lxiv]?

Does satisfying their desire to be elected to leadership positions in the World Zionist Congress serve any legitimate purpose? After all, the purpose of the World Zionist Congress is to support a strong Israel; not to de-legitimize or otherwise weaken it. Yet, there are those within the Hatikvah slate who propose that the Congress be converted into a veritable shadow government. They wish to substitute their own personal judgment for that of the duly elected government of Israel and seek to micro-manage and frustrate its policies.

Moreover, unlike those who might genuinely seek change, they have not moved to Israel, where they could vote like every other citizen. They prefer to virtue signal, often through a drumbeat of unrelenting and outrageous public criticism of Israel, despite not being privy to the intelligence government decision-makers possess or being fully familiar with the facts on the ground. Apparently, they are also unwilling to share the fate of their brethren in Israel and bear the brunt of their own misguided judgments. Instead, they smugly and irresponsibly dictate their moral imperatives from afar, with a presumptuousness that is unwarranted and untenable to most knowledgeable and discerning representatives of major Jewish organizations. Is it any wonder that at least one sought to be a member in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations[lxv] but was not accepted?

Having failed to win the hearts and minds of 95% of Jews and a majority of Americans, who view Israel favorably[lxvi], this group of interlopers appears intent on taking over the World Zionist Congress. Consider, the sheer arrogance of their plan. Among other things, the Congress makes decisions regarding key institutions, which allocate nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry (including the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael – Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel). Surrendering control of the Congress to this group would permit them to be invested with its prestige, influence and funding. It would enable them insidiously to promote their own agenda, whether or not it comports with the will of Israel and its electorate or the overwhelming majority of Jewry. It is a matter that should be of concern to all those who support a strong and enduring Israel.

Like Dathan and Abiram of old, they disdain the Jewish State of Israel, preferring to live in the Diaspora. They often single Israel out for rebuke, glibly and often baselessly posturing, while ignoring context and excusing or disregarding the malign activities of the PA, Hamas, Iran and others. They purport to dictate to their brethren in Israel what risks they should be willing to take, from the safety of the United States, where their lives are not in constant jeopardy from the nefarious forces threatening to murder of men, women and children in Israel. What claim do those who don’t share the fate of their brethren in Israel have to undermine an organization like the World Zionist Organization that is devoted to strengthening Israel? Why should those who oppose present-day Israel and seek to undermine its legitimate government be given a potent vehicle to pursue their personal and pernicious program?

Dathan and Abiram may no longer walk the Earth; but the scourge they engendered is still extant. Is it any surprise that Jews are cast in prominent roles as the face of otherwise malevolent organizations, promoting BDS or other anti-Jewish programs? Whether they truly believe in the cause, cynically enjoy the attention or are paid for the job they do, the result is the same. They continue to serve as useful tools for the nefarious forces behind them. It is truly mystifying why they have this irrepressible need to join in attacking Israel on social media and elsewhere and feel compelled to work with or condone those who seek its destruction. Why not work on some other worthy cause or just go about their own personal lives? Why not just leave Israel alone?

The Talmud[lxvii] notes a genuine representative of the Jewish people requires near universal acceptance. These ostensibly Jewish fringe anti-Israel groups don’t enjoy public acceptance. They are barely tolerated and even disdained by most. As noted above, 95% of American Jews and a solid majority of Americans, generally, have a favorable view of Israel.

This is not about free speech and the right of each person to express their own personal points of views. However, posturing as a reputable spokesperson for all or most of the Jews is inappropriate. Frankly, it’s galling to hear anti-Jewish propaganda being circulated by those purporting to speak as a Jew or a Rabbi and implying all Jews agree with them[lxviii].

We have a chance to vote for our choice of representatives in the pending elections of the World Zionist Congress. Don’t be beguiled by progressive sounding slogans. Israel is one of the most progressive places on the planet, because that is what the people of Israel want; not because of any outside influences. Don’t allow the Congress, a respected and recognized platform in support of Israel, to be hijacked by those with their own personal political agenda, in conflict with Israel and at variance with the will of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people. I voted the ZOA slate; but there are many others like the OU slate, which are worthy of support. This is because they are genuinely interested in maintaining a strong Israel and strengthening the relationship between Israel and all Jews throughout the world.

It’s time for everyone who truly cares about the Jewish people and Israel to exercise their right to vote. This can be done online at Am Yisroel Chai.




[i] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 13:18 and 10:22, as well as, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18, Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13:17, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 1:4. See also Ezekiel 20:8-9 and Radak commentary thereon.

[ii] Pew Research Center-A Portrait of Jewish Americans, dated October 1, 2013.

[iii] I can’t help but reflect on the reference in the Musaf Kedusha (Nusach Sfard) that the final redemption will be like the first one.

[iv] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3.

[v] See Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and JT Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.

[vi] See BT Nedarim 64b.

[vii] Targum of Yonatan ben Uzziel, Exodus 14:3.

[viii] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10.

[ix] See Malbim commentary on Avot 5:17.

[x] Numbers, Chapter 16.

[xi] See BT Sanhedrin 109b.

[xii] See, Drashot HaRan 3:6.

[xiii] Exodus Rabbah 1:27, which notes some say 20 years of age and other say age 40.

[xiv] Exodus 2:11.

[xv] Exodus 2:10.

[xvi] Number 12:3.

[xvii] See, Exodus 4:13 and Rashi and Sforno commentaries thereon.

[xviii] See, Ibn Ezra commentary on Numbers 12:3.

[xix] Exodus 2:11.

[xx] Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Shemot 2:13.

[xxi] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10 and Vayera, Siman 6.

[xxii] See, for example, BT Megillah 11a and Sanhedrin 109b.

[xxiii] See Exodus 7:7. See also Rashbam commentary on Numbers 12:1 and Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 40:4.

[xxiv] Exodus, Chapter 3.

[xxv] Exodus 4:1.

[xxvi] Exodus 4:10.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Exodus 6:12 and 6:30.  The phrase used may be literally translated as ‘uncircumcised lips’. See Targum Yonatan, Rashi and Sforno commentaries on Exodus 6:12.

[xxix] See Drashot HaRan 3:6-10; Gevurat HaShem 28:1; and Chizkuni, Daat Zkenim, Haemek Davar, Malbim, Sforno, Shadal, Tur HaAruch and Ohr HaChaim commentaries on Exodus 6:12.

[xxx] Exodus, Chapters 7-13.

[xxxi] Exodus 10:28.

[xxxii] Exodus 32:7-14.

[xxxiii] Exodus 32:32

[xxxiv] Exodus, Chapter 14.

[xxxv] Exodus 14:12.

[xxxvi] Exodus 14:18-20.

[xxxvii] Exodus 17:8-14.

[xxxviii] See Ibn Ezra commentary on Exodus 17:12.

[xxxix] See Malbim commentary on Exodus 17:12.

[xl] See BT Ta’anit 11a.

[xli] See also Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 17:12.

[xlii] Numbers 21:21-25.

[xliii] Deuteronomy, Chapter 3.

[xliv] See Midrash Tanchuma Tezaveh 9:2.

[xlv] After all of Moses’ herculean efforts in leading the Jewish people and overcoming all manner of challenges, G-d denied him entry into the land of Israel. The Bible (Numbers, Chapter 20) notes this was because he struck the rock to obtain the water the people desperately needed, instead of speaking, at the incident of the Waters of Strife (See, Strike Fear or Symbolize Peace; a Choice of Staffs, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 7/12/19). He might have blamed his fatal mistake on their inappropriate behavior; but he didn’t.

[xlvi] See Numbers 27:15-23.

[xlvii] See, for example, Numbers, Chapters 11, 13, 14, 16, 20 and 25.

[xlviii] Ibid and see also BT Bava Batra 75a.

[xlix] Deuteronomy 34:1.

[l] Ibid and see Nachmanides commentary thereon.

[li] See Or HaChaim commentary on Deuteronomy 33:2.

[lii] See Exodus Rabbah 2:2

[liii] See Rashi commentary on Numbers 27:15, as well as, Deuteronomy 34:9 and BT Bava Kamma 92b.

[liv] Numbers Chapter 16.

[lv] See Meshech Chochma, Korach 15.

[lvi] The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 5:20) does however records they nevertheless had some redeeming qualities. It seems that when the Egyptian taskmasters ordered them to strike a fellow Jew, they demurred and took the resulting lashing themselves.

[lvii] Numbers 16:25 and see BT Sanhedrin 110a, as well as, Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 18:12

[lviii] See Malbim commentary on Avot 5:17.

[lix] See Meshech Chochma, Korach 15.

[lx] See, for example, the Opinion piece by Jeremy Ben-Ami, President and founder of J Street and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah, at, entitled: Americans shouldn’t forfeit their freedom of speech so that states can support Israel, dated 1/20/20. This despite the fact that the Arkansas Federal court upheld the law and the recent 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals decision (on 1/6/20), effectively upholding a similar law in Arizona. See also, Column One: Peter Beinart’s latest publicity stunt, by Caroline B. Glick, in The Jerusalem Post, dated 8/17/18.

[lxi] See, J Street says it supports the right to boycott…and anti-BDS resolution, by the TOI staff, in the Times of Israel, dated 7/19/19.

[lxii] See, Michigan candidate backs 1-state solution, slashing military aid to Israel, by JTA, in the Times of Israel, dated 8/15/18.

[lxiii] See, Tlaib deletes retweet blaming Israelis for death of boy who apparently drowned, by JTA and TOI staff, at the Times of Israel, dated 1/26/20.

[lxiv] See, House approves contentious resolution on Israel, by Sarah Ferris, in Politico, dated 12/6/19.

[lxv] See, The inside story of J Street’s rejection by the Conference of Presidents, by Edwin Black, at the Times of Israel, dated 5/30/14.

[lxvi] See, Gallup: American Jews, Politics and Israel, by Frank Newport, dated 8/27/19.

[lxvii] See BT Brachot 55a.

[lxviii] See, The Beguiling Pretense of Prefacing Remarks as a Jew or Rabbi, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 7/17/19.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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