With their back against the Red Sea, the Israelites watch the Egyptian army fast approaching. In fear and desperation, the people reach out to Moses, who immediately appeals to God.
God’s response is succinct and direct: “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to move forward.” (Exodus 14:15) Picking up on the urgency of the moment, Rashi, our foremost Biblical commentator, understands God’s comment as follows: “It’s not a time for prayer, when the people are in trouble.” In essence, the Almighty tells Moses that after hearing the people, his action steps are obvious.
The brief exchange between God and Moses empowers the latter not just as a divine messenger, but also as a public leader. During their forty-year trek in the wilderness, Moses effectively guides the people to the Promised Land by being attuned to their needs.
This is not the only time in this week’s Torah portion that the people complain, and sadly we know it won’t be their last. However, if we view this Torah reading only as a litany of complaints, then we will miss an essential leadership lesson found therein.
In an age of polarization in our public sphere, the importance of active listening is especially relevant for leaders today. We can find an echo of this insight in Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again: “Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker.” In essence, listening is learning that can make us better.
Beyond learning, listening is also leading, even when we don’t agree with the message. When Saul is anointed the first king of Israel not everyone is enthralled. As some Israelites exclaim, “Long live the king,” others mutter under their breath about their disappointment in God’s choice to govern the nation. This biblical text informs us that Saul is aware of these doubters, yet “he pretends not to hear.” (I Samuel 10:27) Saul’s restraint teaches leaders – and parents alike – that not every comment warrants a response.
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, teaches us about the importance of listening. Every time we listen to another human being, we show that they matter. We remain grateful to Moses who demonstrates the inherent connection between leadership and listening, as well as the relational benefits and communal blessings that emerge from it.