Monthly archives "March 2019"

Insights on Leadership

Passover, 2019

Compiled by Rabbi Corinne Copnick with appreciation to sources from


Passover, 2019

Compiled by Rabbi Corinne Copnick 

with appreciation to sources from

“In the history of Mankind there are two differing kinds of magic to be found….On the one hand, there is the magic of spontaneity, where a person goes out to meet the chaotic element with his full collected being, and overpowers it by doing what is unforeseen and unforeseeable even to himself [Abraham and Moses]. On the other hand, there is the magic of formula, and nothing is more necessary than its correct application. It was the kind which, in Egypt, was given to the dead to accompany his journey to the heaven world or the underworld….

“Freedom,[on the other hand], means insecurity, improvisation, and the need to meet chaotic forces with our full, collected beings. We have, however, our heritage to stabilize us and give us guidance. We… embrace the ‘insecurity of freedom,’ as Heschel calls it, with wonder, faith, wholeness, and a principled outlook on the kind of change we’re intent on establishing and which we will ALWAYS fight for: one which demands that the human foot not simply be a vehicle to turn a water wheel [in order for slaves to make bricks from mud in Egypt]. System disruption is in our blood. It’s what we celebrate every Passover.

— Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant, pp 22-23.

The disruption of the Egyptian system in the Exodus story

First of all, according to the Talmud (Sotah 12a: 9-12),  although Moses’ father, Amran, was said to be the leader of his generation, he did not think clearly when the Pharaoh decreed that male Hebrew infants should be thrown into the Nile at birth so that the Hebrews would not multiply. He was so distraught that he cried, “We are striving for nothing!”

“He then divorced his wife. Every man followed him and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him: ‘Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh’s decree applies only to boys, but yours applies to boys and girls. Pharaoh’s decree extends only to this world, but yours extends to this world and the world to come. The wicked Pharaoh’s decree might or might not be acted upon [in any given situation], but you are a righteous person so your decree will take effect. Amran went and brought back his wife. All the men brought back their wives as well….”

So, beginning with Amran’s daughter, Miriam, you might say that, initially, the disruption of the Egyptian system was orchestrated by women and with considerable dramatic irony. What happened next is told in Exodus 1. It’s about the courage of the midwives, in this case, Shifrah and Puah, who were usually present at the birth of a baby.

The Midwives: Shifrah and Puah:

“But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them but saved the men-children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the mid-wives and said unto them: ‘Why have ye done this thing and have saved the men-children alive?’ And the midwives said unto Pharaoh: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively and are delivered ere the midwife comes unto them. And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and waxed very mighty” (Exodus 1: 17-20).

Yocheved, Miriam’s mother, who sets her newborn son in an ark-like basket she has made in the reeds beside the sea. Her hope is that someone will find and protect him from the death that would otherwise await. Some commentators note the connection between the “ark” Moses mother made for him and the ark of the Noah story. Both saviors are saved on the water.

The Pharaoh’s Daughter. When her servants discover the child in the reeds, in defiance of her father’s edict, she compassionately adopts him as her son. The Hebrew name she gives him, Moses, means “drawn from the water.” In Egyptian, Mos’e means “my son.”

Miriam, Moses’ sister, watches her baby brother in the reeds from afar until he is discovered by the servants. Then she approaches the Pharaoh’s daughter to offer Yocheved’s services as a wet-nurse. Thus Moses’ own mother nurses him until he is old enough to join the household of the Pharaoh’s daughter.

As Josephus (a famous Jewish historian who lived in the 1st century and was the author of Antiquities), comments, Moses is indeed “brought up in a surprising way” – the future leader of the Hebrew slaves is raised in the house of their oppressor. Josephus predicts that Moses “shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians. His memory shall be famous while the world lasts; and this not only among Hebrews, but foreigners also.”

What is the significance of Moses’ being brought up in the royal palace? 

The great medieval biblical commentator, philosopher and scholar, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) suggests a fascinating response to this question:

“The thoughts of God are deep; who can perceive his secret? To Him alone the plot is clear. Perhaps God caused it to come about that Moshe would grow up in the royal palace, that his soul might be habituated to be on the highest level, not lowly and accustomed to being in a house of slaves. For do we not see that he kills the Egyptian for performing an act of unjust violence? And he saves the (seven) Midianite daughters (of the Priest of Midian) from the shepherds, for they (the shepherds) perform unjust violence in watering their flocks from the water drawn by them (the daughter of Re’uel). And moreover: had he grown up among his brethren, such that they had known him since his youth, they would not be in awe of him, for they would consider him as one of them.”

Ibn Ezra on Exodus 2:3.2

So Ibn Ezra suggests that Moses’ position in the royal palace exposed him to “highest level” ideals, such as that “unjust violence” is reprehensible. According to Ibn Ezra, if Moses had been brought up a slave, he would not have been able to lead the people from slavery. Do you agree? Why or why not?

The Consequences of Murder….Flight. The grown-up Moses, brought up in a royal household as an Egyptian prince, becomes increasingly aware of his Hebrew heritage and the suffering of his Hebrew brothers. Angered by witnessing mistreated “slaves in Egypt creating bricks of mud from a pool of water and then using them to build a mastaba (a small pyramid-like tomb),” 1) he kills an Egyptian overseer who is beating a captive Hebrew slave with a whip. But when 2) Moses later intervenes between two fighting Hebrews, they berate him for setting himself up as a ruler and judge over them. “Will you kill us as you did the Egyptian?” they ask. People know about the murder. When Pharaoh finally hears about it, Moses fears the consequences and flees to Midian, where 3) once again he defends the seven daughters of Midian against the shepherds who are their attackers. These three episodes are formative episodes in his life. He is consumed with the ideal of justice and angered by unjust violence. For several years, Moses lives as a shepherd in Midian and eventually marries the Priest of Midian’s daughter. 

Nechama Leibowitz (an outstanding 20th century Israeli bible scholar comments on these three formative episodes as contributors to the leadership role that Moses will fulfill. In her Studies in Exodus, she concentrates on his motivations:

“Moses intervened on three occasions to save the victim from the aggressor. Each of these represents an archetype. First he intervenes in a clash between a Jew and a non-Jew, second between two Jews, and third between two [groups of] non-Jews. In all three cases, Moses championed the just cause…Had we been told only of the first clash, we  might have doubted the unselfishness of his motives. Perhaps he had been activated by a sense of solidarity with his own people, hatred for the stronger oppressing his people rather than pure justice. Had we been faced with the second example…perhaps he was revolted by the disgrace of watching internal strife amongst his own folk, activated by national pride…Came the third clash where both parties were outsiders, neither brothers nor neighbors. His sense of justice and fair play was exclusively involved.”

These incidents are the only pieces of information that we are given in the Bible about Moses’ youth and adolescence. Before them, he is a child in the very heart of the Egyptian corridors of power. After them, he will marry and receive the revelation of God at the burning bush in Exodus Chapter 3, inaugurating him as a prophet and messenger of God and redeemer of the Jewish people.

The Voice Within. So in Midian, Moses is restless. His unsettled conscience about his Hebrew brethren calls him to return to Egypt, where, together with his reunited brother Aaron, he confronts the Pharaoh to release the people of his birth, the Hebrews. Let them go, he pleads. It is the next step in the development of a leader.

Consider these vital questions:

What shapes the development of a leader?

What is the essence of a leader?

In his article, “Who will be our rabbis?” Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. Tackles the subject of leadership:

“What then, is a true Jewish leader? The Torah (Numbers 1:15) calls the leaders “the heads of the thousands of Israel.” This defines their essence. The Torah is thus telling us that a true leader is like a head. The head is the part of the body that knows what is happening in all the other organs, and feels the pain of every one of them. Similarly, the leader is supposed to sense the problems and feel the pains of everyone.

Times of Israel, 27 December 2013.

How do differing perspective on leadership affect whom we honor, dignify, and look to as heroes or leaders in our lives today?

Purim Approaches With Complexity…And Humor

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

(based on Sefaria’s source sheets)

As a rabbi, I have been making good use of the online Jewish resource, Sefaria, since its website was established not so long ago. Its content virtually (no pun intended!) spans an immense compilation of Judaic resources formerly available only in Hebrew or Hebrew-Aramaic texts  — like the Talmud. Now this vast treasure is translated into English and available with the click of a mouse. The vast amount of sheer vision, work, intelligence, and technological skill that went into producing this site is indeed remarkable.

Recently Sefaria sent me a complex source sheet for a “Pro-Mordechai Purim Shpiel” (supporting Mordechai as the hero of this story – that’s the way the story is traditionally told — about a failed anti-Semitic attempt to kill all the Jews in Persia).  In this version, the villain is Haman, and in the retelling of the story, we greet his name with hisses and noisemakers (graggers). In case Haman’s virulent antisemitism sounds alarmingly familiar  — and even current — it’s helpful to know that the Purim/Esther/Mordechai/Haman story happened a long time ago. It is recorded in the Megillah, a scroll dated to the fourth century B.C., which Jews refer to as a very long story indeed! Fortunately, there’s lots of humor in it (biblical scholar Adele Berlin refers to it as a comedy, even a burlesque, with its never-ending banquets), as well as tragedy fortunately prevented. So through the centuries, Purim has continued to be a happy, if somewhat bittersweet, tale of survival. For many Jews, the Purim celebration has served as a needed break from tsouris, a safety valve from tension.

Believed to have been redacted by the Sages of the Great Assembly from an original text by Mordechai, Megillat Esther was the last of the 24 books of the Tenakh to be canonized. The rabbis of that time were concerned about whether 14-year old Esther, chosen for her beauty to be Persian King Ahasuerus’ queen, was eating kosher food when she attended the Persian banquets. They decided that, as a good Jewish (her religion hidden) girl, she either ate vegetarian foods only or she ate before the banquets. The rabbis also excused/whitewashed her acceptance of sexual intercourse with the king, albeit to save the Jewish people from harm, on the grounds that she remained passive; she didn’t allow herself to enjoy it. Hmmm?

At any rate, it’s a great story, a very teachable one. Now  teaching through storytelling is a well-established educational and favored Judaic method. In fact, approximately one-third of the Babylonian Talmud (one of the earliest and most honored commentaries on the Torah) consists of stories. Some are legalistic, and some are not. Talmudic aggadic (moral and ethical but not legalistic) stories are not fussy about time and place. So the fact that the central rabbis involved in this Purim shpiel – Rava and Zeira – lived mainly in different centuries (3rd C.E. for Rava and 4th C.E. for Zeira) and different countries (Babylonia and Israel) doesn’t matter. They might have crossed paths here and there. After all, they were both Amoraim — rabbinic scholars whose commentary on the Mishna, the first part of the Talmud (in Hebrew), created the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud (largely in Aramaic). And they both lived after the destruction of the Second Temple when it became increasingly difficult to call your address Israel, which Zeira chose to do.

But as this Purim story begins, Rabbis Rava (who lives in Babylon) and Zeira (who lives in Israel) are planning to go to the big Purim feast in Persian Shushan together. Got it? So what does the Megillah say?

In Megillah 7b:7-8, Rava explains that we should always get so intoxicated on Purim that we can’t tell the difference between our friends (Mordechai) and our enemies (the wicked courtier, Haman). Unfortunately, following his own dictum, Rava got so drunk that he killed his friend, Rabbi Zeira. The next day, a horrified Rava prayed with such remorse that a merciful God allowed a miracle to take place, and Rava was able to revive Rabbi Zeira.  However, when Purim came around the next year, and Rava actually suggested that he and Zeira prepare the Purim feast together, small wonder that Rabbi Zeira declined. “Miracles don’t happen each and every hour,” he said firmly.

Up to this point, if you take this story literally, it raises several questions, as Sefaria suggests: 1) Why did Rava kill his friend? 2) How was Rava able to bring him back from the dead? 3) Since Rava taught that being intoxicated on Purim was a good thing — because a drunken state erased the differences between people — why would the story portray him as being so out-of-control he killed his friend? Why would the Talmud’s editors include this anonymous story anyway?

Keep in mind that Talmudic stories usually have many levels of meaning to unravel: First of all, Rava had conflicting views about alcohol. He quoted the Bible (Proverbs 23:31) as teaching can that even looking at wine [red like blood] can lead to bloodshed, and, in Rava’s case, it certainly did. On the other hand, “wine and good scents make me wise,” he said. He thought alcohol helped people be more intuitive in their judgements.

However, Rava had a Machiavellian goal in promoting alcohol consumption at Purim. He wanted to use alcohol as a political tool in persuading people to understand that Mordechai the Jew was not the hero he is usually considered: When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman (a man of noble lineage placed in a high position by King Ahasuerus, who favored him), Mordechai actually did the wrong thing, Rava insisted. He  endangered all the Jews in Persia.

But Zeira countered that it was idolatry to bow down to Haman, and “the merciful Torah does not hold someone liable for worshipping idolatry under coercion.” According to Sefaria, “Rabbi Zeira, like Rava, held a minority position that it is permissible to [i.e., pretend to] worship idolatry under coercion.” While they both held the same “ideological framework for suggesting that Mordechai made the wrong choice in refusing to bow to Haman,” Rava went too far by using alcohol to persuade people to their point of view.

And Rava also made a big thing out of the fact that Zeira did not have faith in a second miracle happening (many Jews at that time believed that only miracles could save them). And he turned on Rabbi Zeira. Did Rabbi Zeira lack faith? Why didn’t the current generation believe in miracles when previous generations did?

Against this background of uncertainty, two other rabbis enter the picture – most of the actors in aggadic dramas are rabbis! Now Rav Pappa asks Abaye, a rabbi constantly in ideological conflict with Rava in Talmudic disputes, what is different about the current generation, why they don’t believe in miracles. And Abaye replies: “The previous generations would martyr themselves for the sanctification of God’s name, while we do not martyr ourselves for the sanctification of God’s name….[In other words], “Jews [of the new generation] are not willing to die to sanctify God’s name. This is precisely what those who view Mordechai as a hero think that Mordechai did.” Mordechai was willing to risk the penalties that would come from refusing to bow to Haman. For me, that’s a hero.

It is speculated that Abaye (often in opposition to Rava’s thinking in the Talmud) was actually the anonymous rabbi who wrote this story. Worshipping Haman through fear, he asserted, was not an argument that scripture supported. On the other hand, he also believed that Mordechai should probably not have antagonized him.

Esther (Esther, Megillah 9:26), the heroine of the story, pops up at this point to support her Uncle Mordechai’s position. “What did Mordechai see that made him incite Haman?” she cried. “Because of this,” she says, referring to the fact that Haman had made himself a human idol to be worshipped, “the miracle occurred.” It happened because Mordechai refused to bow down to him. Miracles occur because of rightful actions like this.

There was also another deep-seated reason for the antagonism between Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai came from good stock, from powerful people. On his father’s side, he was a Benjaminite, descended through the generations from Kish. And who was Kish but the father of Saul, the first Jewish king? On Mordechai’s mother’s side, he was descended from generations of Judeans, and King David was the king of Judah who went on to unite all of Israel.

Now Haman also came from powerful people, the Amalekites. He was descended from the King of Agag, who, you will remember, Saul was ordered by God to kill when he conquered the Amalekites. But Saul spared him in return for keeping some of the spoils. As a result, the prophet Samuel made sure that Saul lost his throne to David.

Jews are supposed to remember to forget Amalek, the warrior who attacked the weak, the sick, the helpless – and never to have anything to do with the Amalekites. So you can see that Mordechai and Haman might still have retained considerable residual anger from their ancestors. And that is why, at Purim, we Jews shake our noise-makers and stamp our feet whenever we hear Haman’s name mentioned in the Purim shpiels. By the way, a Purim shpiel is a satiric play, yes, even a burlesque. Despite recounting a history that teetered on the edge of tragedy, it’s a lot of fun.

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved