One of the more dramatic events in the Torah — the splitting of the sea — is related in this week’s Torah reading of Beshalach. The newly freed Jewish nation are seemingly trapped between the Egyptian army on one side, and the sea on the other. They are overwhelmed with panic and regret, and they vent to Moshe their leader, who conveys their words to God.
God’s reply is simple: “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Jews to move forward!” And with that Moshe divides the sea, initiating the final act in the rescue of the Jews and the defeat of Egypt. This culminates in the Shira — the song of praise deemed so important that it has been incorporated into the daily prayers, and preceded by the verse (Shmot 14:31) “And the Jews saw the might of God … and they believed in God and in Moshe, His servant”.
This was the moment — after hundreds of years of slavery, a year of retribution against their oppressors, leaving Egypt, and witnessing the greatest miracle ever — when they finally believed, and their belief is expressed as being not just in God, but also in Moshe, God’s faithful servant.
Belief in God is a fundamental tenet of Judaism, but is belief in His servants also that important?
These days, that can be a challenge. Every week we read of another emerging scandal involving Jewish leaders and Rabbis. The list is endless: sexual abuse, cover-ups, corruption, abuse of power, white collar crime, conflict of interest. It’s enough to make people want to give it all up, and sadly many have, often a consequence of being on the wrong side of bad leadership.
I’ve seen it up close in our own community in Melbourne, and it has left me deeply disillusioned with many people in positions of authority. The adage says that people get the leaders they deserve, which had me regularly asking myself: “what did we do (or not do) to deserve leaders like this?” I’m still looking for an answer to that one. After some serious setbacks, our path to a well-governed and well-led community will take several more years.
Then I saw a video from my cousin Devorah Kaplan from Florida where she speaks passionately and very personally about what being a Rebbetzin means to her. At one stage, she recounts a time when she was ready to give it all up in the wake of an ugly community conflict. She turned to her father who responded succinctly: “your relationship with God is uniquely yours”.
When our leaders, and indeed our fellow Jews let us down, it’s easy to blame God, religion at large, or whichever group the offender is associated with. As humans, we suffer from a terrible bias: we celebrate the individual, but blame the collective. If someone does something well, we don’t see them as representative of all [humans, Jews, etc], but when there’s a scandal, we are quick to assign blame to all [Jews, Muslims, Chabadniks etc]. It’s an asymmetry that doesn’t make any sense, yet it’s something we do time and again.
We believe in God, and we want to believe in His servants too. But His servants keep letting us down, and can challenge our belief in God. Is belief in His servants that important?
I suggest not.
If our relationship with God is uniquely ours, it means that (a) we ‘own’ that relationship, and (b) it doesn’t depend on the actions (good or bad) of others. We have the ability, the choice and therefore the obligation to make that relationship whatever we want it to be. We can’t outsource that to anyone else.
We can be inspired by good leaders and choose to follow their examples, but when they do the wrong thing, it is equally our choice to not follow, and to criticise.
Leaders, Rabbis, and anyone who lays claim to being a servant of God are all ultimately human. They make mistakes, can be blinded by conflicts, sometimes act with bad intent toward others, and take advantage of the positions of power they have been granted.
Then how to understand Moshe, and the people’s belief in him that was almost on par with their belief in God? About that, we can say two things: Firstly, that Moshe was the greatest leader in Jewish history, unparalleled in his prophecy and relationship with God (Devarim 34:10). The midrash states that such was the degree of Moshe’s sublimation before God, that the divine literally spoke through his mouth. Secondly, we need to consider the context of the Jews journey from slavery to freedom, and then nationhood, and the emergence of their belief in God following the miracle of the sea. It’s possible that to reinforce their belief in God, they needed a prototypical leader like Moshe, who could be a living example of unadulterated service to God and His people.
The Zohar explains that there are sparks of the soul of Moshe in each generation – the special leaders who embody his spirit of altruism and service to God. They are the few servants that we may genuinely believe in.
My belief in God, and my relationship with God, is mine alone, and remains unaffected by the human frailty of those who purport to be His servants.