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Kenneth Brander
Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

How Willing Are We To Help Others? (Parshat Shemot)

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The Gemara in Berakhot tells us a very interesting and compelling story about Rabban Gamliel, who took over as the president of the Sanhedrin after Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

[Rabban Gamliel] had challenges with some of the other rabbinic leaders, and after a rabbinic argument, he was going to the House of Rabbi Yehoshua to make peace. When he walks into the house of Rabbi Yehoshua, welcomed by Rabbi Yehoshua, he notices that Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, that the walls are blackened.

And he says to Rabbi Yehoshua: I knew you were a great scholar, but I didn’t know you’re also a metalsmith that had to do this work in order to be able to put food on the table.

Rabbi Yehoshua responds to Rabbi Gamliel and says: woe is it to this generation, that it has a leader who doesn’t know the pain of the colleagues that he is responsible for. [Berakhot 28a]

Moshe Rabbeinu becomes the leader of the Jewish people in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. But before he is appointed leader by God, we are introduced to three stories about Moshe.

The first is Moshe as an aristocrat, leaving the House of Pharaoh, and seeing a slave being oppressed by an Egyptian citizen. [Exodus 2:11-12]

“וירא כי אין איש” – And he sees that there’s no one willing to do anything about this. And so he does something to end the pain of the slave. He destroys the Egyptian citizen.

The second story is Moshe walking in the streets of Egypt, and he sees two Jews in an argument and he turns to them and says: “רשע למה תכה את רעך” – Why are you hurting the other Jew? [Exodus 2:13]

Moshe, again, is pained by the fact that two Jews can’t get along and wants to right that wrong.

And the third story is, after Moshe is forced to leave Egypt and he’s in the cities of Midian, he sees that shepherdesses, the daughters of Yitro, are being attacked by the other shepherds by the well, and Moshe steps in to be able to deal with the fight between these strangers, because he sees the injustice. [Exodus 2:16-17]

It is these three situations of injustice that Moshe sees that allows God to appoint him to be the quintessential leader of the Jewish people, because after all, you cannot lead if you don’t feel the pain of the other.

Rabbi Soloveitchik shared with us something unique about his grandfather. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, who was the great composer of chidushim on the Rambam: Rabbi Chaim from the town of Brisk, the rabbi of Brisk, asked that on his tombstone, it just be listed that he is the “Av Beis Din d’Brisk”, the rabbi of Brisk.

And Rabbi Soloveitchik explained to us: because at the end of the day, what defines a leader is not his great drashot, is not his great sermons, nor is it his great chidushei Torah, his great exposition on the Rambam, but his willingness to be concerned about others.

And Rav Chaim of Brisk was concerned about the illegitimate child who had nowhere to go; he was concerned about the poor that didn’t have wood to fuel their homes; and he was concerned about the average person when he saw injustice occurring.

A leader has to be someone who feels the pain of others.

As we read the first parsha in the Book of Shemot and we speak about leadership, we have to ask ourselves: How do we respond to injustice? How do we respond to abuse? How do we respond to the issue of aguna? How do we respond when children aren’t being taken care of properly?

We have to follow the path of Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe becomes “Rabbeinu” when he can feel the pain of another human being, be it a Jew or a member of society.

Please God, we will internalize that message and be truly the children of God, making sure that His ways are ways of peace, and those ways of peace are followed throughout our society.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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