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?