Leadership comes with a backstory. Moshe doesn’t simply emerge from the woodwork and save the Jewish people. Parshat Shemot tells the story of Moshe’s personal development as he grows into the leader he will become. It is these stories from his early life that set the stage for his role in the redemption of our people, which teach us about the moral prerequisites of great leadership.
Having been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace, it is only as a young adult that Moshe first ventures out to the world beyond. He witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster assaulting an enslaved Jew, and immediately attacks the attacker to defend the defenseless.
The following day, Moshe witnesses another brawl, this time between two Jews. He confronts the wrongdoer and challenges him to justify his actions, this time using words, rather than force, to promote justice.
Finally, upon fleeing to Midian, he discovers immediately upon arrival that the daughters of Yitro have been denied access to the well from which they hoped to draw water for their flock. Without missing a beat and despite being new to the territory, a total stranger, Moshe identifies people being mistreated and stands up to those doing them harm.
These three episodes, Nechama Leibowitz argues in Studies in Shemot (Exodus), reflect three archetypes of moral development. In order to earn his place as the redeemer of Israel, Moshe must defend a Jew from external harm, combat the internal strife among Jews, and support an outsider in need, engaging in justice beyond the bounds of the Jewish people. Only upon passing these three ‘tests’ is he deemed fit to lead the people.
Today, we face these three tests once again. The challenge to take on those who do our people harm and wish for our total destruction, be they in the Middle East or elsewhere throughout the globe; the challenge to tackle our own resurgent divisiveness, and the responsibility to speak out against oppression and actively advocate for justice anywhere in the world.
If we are to maintain our physical survival, our national solidarity, and our fidelity to our halakhic ethos, we have no choice but to recognize that often our commitment to these responsibilities are overlapping and simultaneous. We have seen our people step up to the plate for nearly three months, fighting courageously against an unprecedented external threat, overcoming critical social rifts, and taking exceptional steps to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties.
But there remains a long, arduous, road ahead of us, and it will take great resolve and bravery to continue on this path. Nonetheless, we will take our lead from Moshe Rabbeinu, who led us once from subjugation and suffering to freedom and redemption, and whose example will lead us once again.