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Naomi Graetz

Our Humble Leaders of the IDF and the Israelites

A REFRESHING MODEL OF LEADERSHIP

Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi took over Monday as the 23rd Commander of the Israel Defense Forces, and vowed to keep politics out of the IDF. His ending words about himself as a member of the religious scouts (tzofim) in Jerusalem were as follows: “Today with modesty and humbleness (tzeniut ve-anava) I am ready to take on this job”.  Anyone with a sensitive ear will immediately think of Moses who is described by God as very humble/modest — anav me’od (Numbers 12:3). The context of this was when his siblings Miriam and Aaron confronted him about the Cushite woman and God was angry with them about this mini-rebellion. Unfortunately, modesty is a trait lacking in almost everyone of our leaders today and would that Halevi be a role model for the rest of the world. But that is not the case. Most leaders today are so sure of themselves. Their attitude is akin to that of Louis XV who is supposed to have said après moi le deluge! In other words an attitude of: I couldn’t care less what will happen after I am no longer around. Unfortunately, people who choose leaders like that (or their associates) do not understand what they are voting for until it is too late. This was expressed succinctly by Thomas Friedman who wrote:

Early this month, a former Netanyahu right-wing defense minister and former chief of staff of the Israeli Army, Moshe Ya’alon, tweeted that Netanyahu’s judicial “reforms” revealed “the true intentions of a criminal defendant” who is “ready to burn down the country and its values … in order to escape the dock. … Who would have believed that less than 80 years after the Holocaust that befell our people, a criminal, messianic, fascist and corrupt government would be established in Israel, whose goal is to rescue an accused criminal” (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/17/opinion/netanyahu-israel-protests).

People are rioting in the streets, questioning the authority of the new government. Is this the correct thing to do? Should we sit back and wait to see how things turn out, hoping for the best?

THE CASE OF MOSES

Moses is an interesting role model for questioning authority, including God’s. The opening of this week’s parsha, va-erah, goes as follows:

And God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH.  And I appeared va-erah to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name YHWH I was not known no-da-ati to them.  And I also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned.  And also I Myself have heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians enslave, and I do remember My covenant.  Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘I am YHWH. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt and I will rescue you from their bondage and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great retributions.  And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be your God elohim, and you shall know vi-da-atem that I am YHWH, your God Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt (Exodus 6:3-6).

What we see here is technically known as an inclusio (an envelope structure), with “knowledge” da-at as its opening and concluding idea. Despite the fact that God’s name YHWH was not known to the ancestors, the people of Israel will know that it is YHWH who will be their savior.

In a fascinating midrash on one of the verses above, God compares Moses with the patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were unquestioning as to what God’s name was, whereas Moses demands to know with whom he is dealing. The verse being expounded is: “And I showed myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name YHWH, known to them” (Exodus 6:3). The commentators have much to say about the differences between God’s many names, Shaddai, Elohim and YHWH, but the consensus seems to be that YHWH is the God of rachamim, mercy, whereas Elohim is traditionally understood as the God of din, righteousness and law.

“And I appeared unto Abraham…” (6:3). God said to Moses: … Many times, I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (el shadai), but I did not make known to them that My name is YHWH, as I have told you. They did not criticize (hirhuru achar midotai) me for this.  To Abraham I said: ” Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it, for unto thee will I give it” (Gen 13:17), yet when he wanted to bury Sarah, he found no plot of ground until he had purchased one; still, he did not murmur at My ways. I said to Isaac: “Sojourn in this land… for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands” (Gen 26: 3), yet when he sought water to drink, he found none; instead, And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying: The water is ours (vs. 20), yet he did not murmur at My ways. I said to Jacob: ” The land whereon thou lie, to thee will give it, and to thy seed” (Gen 28: 13), yet when he sought a place to pitch his tent, he found none until he purchased one for a hundred kesitah, and still he complained not at My ways nor asked Me, as thou hast asked Me, what is My name.

So the forefathers were compliant and did not question God, at least about knowing his name. But Moses was different and did ask God to identify Himself, as we can see as the midrash continues:

At the beginning of My commission, you inquired of My name and at the end [of My commission] you said: “For since I came to Pharaoh… he has dealt ill with this people ” (vs 23). On this account does it say: and I have also established my covenant (6: 4), which has been given to them, as I promised to give unto them the land, and they never complained of My ways. And moreover, l have heard the groaning of the children of Israel (vs 5), because they did not complain against Me.

Moses questions God: not only does he want to know with whom he is dealing, but he is not willing to accept that God has allowed Pharaoh to mistreat His people. In contrast, the people “never complained” and that’s why God will listen to them (not Moses) because they did not complain.  This statement is problematic, to put it mildly. First of all, we know that the people did complain again and again. Second, are the sages actually suggesting that it is better to keep silent in the face of adversity?  Imagine telling that to all the rioters on the street today in Israel complaining about the new policies and corruption in the government. Unfortunately, the midrash continues in the same vein:

ALSO, although the Israelites of that generation did not conduct themselves righteously, yet have I heard their cry on account of the covenant I had made with their fathers; hence it says: And I have remembered my covenant. Therefore lachen say unto the children of Israel (vs 6); the expression lachen implies an oath…God swore unto Moses that He would redeem them, so that Moses need have no fear lest the attribute of justice midat ha-din should retard their redemption. …. And I Will Bring You into the Land, Concerning Which I Lifted Up My Hand To Give It, To Abraham, To Isaac And To Jacob; And I Will Give It To You For A Heritage (6:8). I will do unto them what I had promised their ancestors, namely, to give unto them the land which they will possess through their merit [and not Moses’s] (Exodus Rabbah – Exodus 6:4).

The midrash thus makes it clear that the land is going to be given to them because of the patriarchs’ unquestioning faith; their merit!!! And not because of Moses’s merit, who complained and questioned too much.

One of the harshest critics of Moses, is an anonymous midrash which concludes that the reason Moses did not get to go into the promised land, was that he asked too many questions. The unquestioning nature of the patriarchs is praised versus Moses who asked “what is Your name” right after God revealed himself to him. He was punished for this as well as for speaking right before this (at the end of last week’s parsha) impertinently to God:

And Moses went back to YHWH, and said, “Adonai, why have You done harm to this people, why have You sent me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people and You surely have not rescued hatzel lo hetzalta Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-23).

And for decrying God in this way and doubting him, God decided Moses would not go into the land (Midrash Aggadah on Exodus 6:3:1).

A MORE FAVORABLE VIEW OF MOSES

On the other hand, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089- 1167, Spain) comments that “the patriarchs did not reach the level where they were able to cleave unto God as Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 6:3). And in a similar vein, Sechel Tov (a 12th century midrash) in comparing Moses with the patriarchs, says that God did not make his name known to them, like he did to Moses in the bush. Only he was chosen to learn God’s holy name mouth to mouth, like a man speaks to his friend. To them he only revealed Himself with suggestions and hints (sechel tov (Buber) on parshat va-erah 6:3).

Thus, according to these last two commentators, it is the patriarchs who fall short and Moses whom God praises and chooses to represent Him.

What models should we be choosing for ourselves? Do we have a right to demand from the supreme authority, what His name is, what He stands for, before choosing Him to be our leader? Or do we quietly accept, wait and have faith that all will be well? Clearly our sages saw both the positive and negative aspects of questioning and inquiry. We have to choose wisely and keep in mind that whatever stance we take will have ramifications.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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