May 29, 2024
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May 29, 2024
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Parshat Shemot: Sleepless Nights

Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union

Can you sleep at night? There is so much trouble in the world. Violence, wars large and small, natural disasters, disease. We all personally know many who are suffering at this very moment. Some are friends and acquaintances living in plain sight. Others are individuals in the media, people whose pain we see portrayed daily on the evening news.

It is perfectly understandable to be unable to sleep at night. Yet most of us do manage to sleep quite well. We all have developed a repertoire of defense mechanisms designed to enable us to keep these troubles from our consciousness. We have compartments in our minds into which we can deposit the suffering of others, somehow sealed and kept from immediate awareness.

But there are those among us who cannot sleep, for the pain of others keeps them awake. Their empathy is so great that the suffering of others is their own suffering and cannot be compartmentalized, or even temporarily forgotten.

Indeed, rather than try to shield themselves from others’ travails, they seek out those others in order to witness their suffering. They do not stop with mere observation and compassion, but actively attempt to alleviate the suffering they witness.

Such a person was Moses, to whom we are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.

Moses was raised in the very lap of luxury. He was reared as a prince in a royal palace, his foster mother the daughter of Pharaoh himself. He grew up in a protected environment in which he was able to remain unaware of, and could certainly ignore, the plight of his enslaved brothers.

But he chose to do otherwise. The very first self-initiated action of which we read in the account of Moses’ life is his inquiry into the condition of his enslaved kinsfolk. “…When Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers and witnessed their labors…” (Exodus 2:11) He did not have to go out; he could have remained in his protected royal quarters. He did not have to “witness”; he could have shut his eyes or used any of the methods we use to shield ourselves against seeing what we do not want to see.

But that was not Moses. In Rashi’s poignant phrase, “He gave over his eyes and his heart to suffer along with them.” He could not sleep.

We often wonder about what qualified Moses for the leadership role he was destined to attain. For that matter, more generally, we speculate as to what qualifies anyone for leadership.

Theories of the elements of good leadership abound. Stephen Covey has written a book on this very subject entitled The Eighth Habit. In it he offers a chart, briefly summarizing no less than 20 such theories, with a list of hundreds of books on the topic.

The theories range from “great man” theories, which contend that leaders are born to leadership because of their innate gifts. But Moses had innate handicaps, which included a speech defect.

Other theories stress the motivations of leaders to lead. Moses insistently and consistently shunned the leadership role.

Still other theories stress the powers of persuasion and the gift of popularity. Neither characterized Moses. He had no apparent charisma, no formal leadership training, no career aspirations, and no special vision other than the one shown to him by God.

Of all the theories on Covey’s comprehensive list, one seems to fit: the theory of “servant leadership,” a theory that implies that leaders primarily lead by serving others. The primary characteristics of such a leader include listening and empathy. These were demonstrated by Moses in his very first venture out of the royal palace.

The characteristics of such leadership also include a commitment to others’ growth. Moses’s leadership can be seen as a life-long process of commitment to others’ growth: to their freedom from slavery, to their spiritual conditions, to their ordinary needs, and to their moral and ethical education.

Some of us strive to be leaders. Most of us are content to leave leadership to others yet strive to know God, to know our own souls, and to benefit others in some small way.

The lesson of the life of Moses is that both the grand leadership that some of us seek and the more modest goals of all who are spiritually motivated can be achieved by “going out to our brothers and witnessing their condition.” It may cost us sleepless nights, but it will bring us enlightened days.

In the words of an anonymous poet:

I sought my God and my God I could not find.

I sought my soul and my soul eluded me.

I sought my brother to serve him in his need,

And I found all three–my God, my soul, and thee.

By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

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