Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In schools, we often believe that our job is to teach our students to become ethical people and responsible members of society by cultivating virtuous traits and helping them to leave behind those attributes of their characters that are not quite as admirable. A look at the life of Moshe, however, which begins with this week’s reading of Parashat Shemot, indicates that perhaps our role is not quite as simple as this. Moshe’s experience teaches us that many character traits and tendencies might themselves simply be neutral—and that rather than helping our students develop some and shed others, our energies might be better utilized toward enabling them to direct their innate qualities toward the welfare of the community, rather than inwardly.

Take Moshe’s encounter with God at the Burning Bush, which occurs when he is a (relatively) young man. Hashem is asking Moshe to take on a task of enormous importance and responsibility—and Moshe responds by coming up with an array of reasons to decline. He begins by demonstrating his humility: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” (Shemot 3:11). When God is undeterred by that, Moshe tries a rational argument: Why would the people listen to me, an apparent foreigner whom they don’t know? (4:1). This too fails to change God’s mind, so Moses proffers up what sounds like an excuse of sorts: “I am not a man of words” (4:10). Hashem perseveres, and finally, Moshe resorts to simple assertion: “Please, send somebody else” (4:13). This too is ineffective, Moshe agrees to go to Pharaoh, and the rest is history.

Humility, rationality, excuse-making and assertiveness: Are these “positive” character traits or “negative” character traits? Should we be working in our schools to inculcate them, or to guide students away if they begin to demonstrate these tendencies? In Moshe’s case, it certainly seems as though he is deploying them toward selfish ends, seeking to avoid a colossally important task because it would be difficult for him.

Fast-forward several months. Following the Ten Plagues, Yetziat Mitzrayim, the splitting of Yam Suf, and the revelation on Har Sinai, Moshe finds himself at the top of the mountain, in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, listening to God promise to wipe out the Israelites and begin a new nation with Moshe as its progenitor. Interestingly, Moshe—who had seemingly been so self-focused at the Burning Bush—resists this strongly. What traits does he demonstrate in doing so?

To begin, Moshe is humble. He not only pleads with God to forgive B’nei Yisrael, but he goes so far as to say that if God refuses, Moshe demands to be erased from the record along with them (32:32). He adds a rational argument: Does Hashem really want to risk having the Egyptians think that God redeemed the people with evil intent, only to kill them off in the wilderness? (32:12). According to the midrash in Shemot Rabbah, he offers an excuse in the people’s defense, reminding God that the people had come from Egypt, a culture that worshiped calves, so it was only natural that they would turn to calf-worship in a time of anxiety. And in a particularly audacious midrash from Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot (32a), Rabbi Abbahu goes so far as to suggest that Moshe literally grabbed onto Hashem and asserted that he would not let go until Hashem forgave the people. And Hashem did so.

What traits does Moshe display in this instance? Humility, rationality, excuse-making and assertiveness—the same ones that we saw at the Burning Bush. Yet the valence of the narrative is completely different: Whereas in the earlier story Moshe was arguing for his own interests, here he is arguing in support of the very people whom he had been reluctant to redeem just months earlier, and in the process he is now turning down what would have been an even greater role for himself in history.

Moshe’s innate tendencies have not changed during these intervening months. He is still inclined to speak humbly, to apply rational argument, to make excuses as needed, and simply to assert himself when he has run out of other options. Rather, what is different is that he has developed maturity and an innate sense of leadership. He has learned to apply his core characteristics to a sacred mission, and as such to become a more selfless human being with a more ambitious communal—rather than individual—vision.

In this way, Moshe serves as an extraordinary role model for our mission in schools. Perhaps our goal is not so much to inculcate our students with a particular set of character traits, as much as it is to help them learn to see themselves as leaders, understand their own tendencies, and apply these tendencies toward more noble societal goals. The characteristics themselves may be neutral and malleable, but as educators we can help the next generation to direct these attributes toward the greater good of the community, rather than toward their own personal interests.

Dr. Michael A. Kay is head of school at The Leffell School.

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