Will the Real Leader Please Stand Up

As we begin the harrowing account of the persecution of the Jews in Egypt in the Book of Shemot, this week’s portion, I wish to look at the story of the exodus from Egypt from the book of Devarim! I think I have license as in the Haggadah, we look to the book of Bereishit, rather than Shemot. – The Magid of the Haggadah, the section that relays the captivating story that keeps us from eating, brings a quote tracing the basis of our tragic sojourn in Egypt, back to Laban, Jacob’s cunning father in law who sought to harm if not destroy him. The creators of this iconic handbook that shepherd’s us through the Seder, ingeniously interpret a series of verses, often segments, in a Rashi like fashion, that serve as the cornerstones through which we actively relive the journey to freedom. Towards the climax of the narrative, just before the recounting of the Ten Plagues, the Haggadah brings a quote from Devarim 26:8, found in the celebrated script for the declaration made when bringing first fruits to Jerusalem;

וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃

The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

On this opening phrase the Haggadah illuminates;

וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא עַל־יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ, אֶלָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּכְבוֹדוֹ וּבְעַצְמוֹ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָּל־בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה, וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים. אֲנִי ה’.

“And the Lord took us out of Egypt” – not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but directly by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, as it is stated (Exodus 12:12); “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord.”

An additional reference is made that also emphasizes the sole role of God in the Exodus. So where is Moshe? And if ultimately the story could well have occurred without him,(as in fact it is curiously relayed in the Haggadah) what was the purpose of bringing him in at all. He, as we know, had no interest in the job, after all. Additionally as we have noted in the past, in the staggering exchange between Moshe and God, he states 3:11;

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְכִ֥י אוֹצִ֛יא אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

“…Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

The Sfat Emet posits that Anochi, I, refers to God and not me, Moshe.The “Anochi” term is used continuously by God in His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the actual narrative of assuring Moshe that He will bring the Jews out of Egypt. In this stunning reading Moshe is in fact challenging God to come true on His promise. He suggests and in fact makes a forceful argument that God Himself should be taking the lead, and as such Moshe’s leadership is superfluous.

And yet…the long march to freedom was predestined to be about us, not God. We needed to learn compassion not just power, to be inspired by the ethical leadership that is human driven and therefore can be emulated. God’s deeds are awesome, yet also overwhelming, the miracles are out of our reach, we are destined to rule and live on earth, lo bashamyim, not in heavenly plains. The evolution of a people and a nation needs to be nurtured through human(ity), through inspiring and accessible role models.The tyranny of Pharaoh demanded a human outcry, a calling that would inform who we would be when becoming a nation with power.

With hindsight we may reconfigure the role of God, thus ensuring that the emulation of the human leader does not become worship, as was the case in Egypt, and in that sense Yetziat Mitzraim, implies leaving that mindset and that hegemony where the pharaohs saw themselves as the ultimate gods. Abraham already paved that path, hence while it appears that we are beginning the Book of Shemot, we are actually also revisiting much of Bereishit, reminded of and nourished by the foundational experiences that determine our identity and calling. 

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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