Yesterday marked the 3,403rd anniversary of the birth of the greatest prophet of all time, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses Our Leader. The same day, 120 years after his birth, also marks “The Day the Prophet Died.”
Moses was the human scribe for G-d’s Divine Torah. He was the leader of the nation of Israel. He was the greatest prophet who ever lived. He was G-d’s partner in the salvation of the Jewish slaves in Egypt. So what made Moses great? What can we learn from his birth, his life, and his death?
Rambam, also known as Maimonides, called Moses “the most perfect human being.” Our sages teach us that “The Divine Presence spoke from his throat.” Yet the Torah itself states that Moses was also “the most humble man on the face of the earth.” To discover the true essence of our greatest prophet, and to uncover the myriad of lessons to be learned from him, one must return to the very beginning of his journey on our planet. Yesterday 3,403 years ago, a baby was born that was so special that his parents’ home was immediately “filled with light.” Yet this precious baby boy awaited the same fate as all Jewish boys in the times of Pharaoh… he was given to the Nile river. Protected only by a reed basket, Moses floated through the crocodile-infested river swamps. Already, long before Moses began to fulfill his potential, we can learn a valuable lesson about leadership from our greatest prophet… Leaders don’t just appear as a gift from above; they emerge from among the people. To be a great leader, you have to start by sharing the fate of the people you lead, just as Moses did so many years ago.
We all know the story of Moses’ childhood. He was rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the palace as an Egyptian prince. During his life of royalty we learn another lesson from Moses. After sharing the fate of your people and rising through the ranks, you must never forget where you came from. During all his years as a prince of Egypt, Moses never stops feeling for the plight of his fellow Jews. The first open display of this is on the day that Moses becomes an adult. He went out “to his brothers” and saw the last seconds of an Egyptian beating Jewish slave to death. Moses felt compelled to act and does so by striking down the Egyptian, sacrificing his life of royalty in a single blow. The very next day Moses went back out among the people and witnessed two Jews arguing with each other. He realized that the Jews were not slaves because of Egypt’s great power over them, but rather because of their lack of Ahavat Yisrael, or love for a fellow Jew. If only the Jews could band together, Moses realized, they could rise up and free themselves. With an epiphany like that, you’d think that Moses would act! He should have become the leader of the Jewish people immediately and helped the nation of Israel band together, right? Bu instead, Moses became a shepherd. How could he do such a thing? Why?!
Although at first glance it may be tempting to see Moses as a coward, we shouldn’t ever let ourselves make such a grave mistake. In fact, Moses is actually teaching us yet another lesson in leadership. A leader is not someone who simply defends his people or fights alongside them. He is not just a teacher, a governor, or a preacher. He is also a nurturer. In fact, you could argue that the primary, most important task of a leader is to develop and provide for his followers. And so, in order to become the “faithful shepherd” of the people of Israel, Moses fled Egypt to herd the sheep of Jethro in Midian.
There is a story in the Midrash that tells us of the day Moses was chosen by G-d to be the leader of Israel. It takes place as Moses is tending a flock, and a kid runs away. Moses chased after it until the kid came to a spring, where it began to drink. When others would have been frustrated over having to go on such a chase, Moses simply cried “Oh! I did not know that you were thirsty!” And just like that, he picked up the kid and cradled it in his arms as he carried it lovingly back to the flock. The Midrash tells us that G-d saw this and said, “You are merciful in tending your flock, so you will tend to My flock, the people of Israel.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches us that not only does this story in the Midrash display Moses’ compassion; it also shows that he understood the true reason why the kid ran away. It was not out of malice or ill-nature; it was simply because he was thirsty. This is a priceless lesson in leadership. Studies have shown time and time again that people by nature want to be successful, they want to contribute, and they want to achieve great things. If someone you lead is “running away,” chances are that they are just thirsty. Instead of firing them or reprimanding them, find a way to nurture that person’s thirst to succeed and you will have no problem carrying them back to the flock. Only once Moses understood this was he able to take his true position as the leader of the Jewish people.
After a lifetime of preparation for his task as the leader of Israel, G-d decides it’s about time Moses got on with it. So what happens? G-d reveals himself to Moses from amongst the branches of the miraculous burning bush, and he says to Moses: “I have seen the afflictions of My people, I have heard their cries, I know their sorrows.” He tells Moses to get going. You know the song: “Go down Moses, way down to Egypt’s land. Tel ol’ Pharaoh, let my people go!” And what does Moses say? “Ehhh… I think I’ll pass, but thanks for the offer.” In fact, not only does Moses say no, he refuses to go. And not only does he refuse to go, he sits there and argues with G-d for seven days and seven nights, pulling every excuse in the book. Excuses of humility, excuses of ignorance, excuses of disbelief, and even excuses of speech impediments! And when G-d continues to insist, Moses finally breaks down and begs: Oh please, my G-d, don’t send me! “Send by the hand of him whom You shall send!” But what does this cryptic plea mean?
We’ve already long established the fact that Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He spoke with G-d face to face. He received Divine Visions while fully conscious, no trances or dreams needed. So it comes as no surprise to us that Moses knew the future fate of the Jewish people. He knew that if he took them out of Egypt, it he was the one that brought them to the land of Israel, then it would only be a matter of time before they faced exile again. And so Moses refused, begging G-d to instead send the final redeemer of Israel, the Messiah that would bring about the end of all exiles and the return of the world to the Garden of Eden’s pure state. Moses was willing to sacrifice his very relationship with G-d for the sake of his people. And so the next lesson of leadership to be learned from Moses is one of intense self-sacrifice.
This lesson of self-sacrifice is one that is seen over and over again throughout Moses’ lifetime. Moses continuously offered his status and his very life in exchange for the people of Israel’s forgiveness and redemption. He fought for our forgiveness after the sin of the golden calf. He fought for our redemption the whole of the 40 years in the desert. He never accepted that the fate of the Jewish people was another impending exile. Even on the last day of his life, Moses pleaded with G-d and beseeched Him to prevent further exile, to the point where G-d grew angry and said to Moses, “Enough!” But for Moses it was never enough. Kabbalah teaches us that even though his life on earth ended 3,283 years ago, his fight lives on. The Zohar, the book of Kabbalah, tells us that every Jewish soul has a spark of Moses’ soul at its very core. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us that Moses was a teacher, whose job it was to open a small window for the inner knowledge to pour down into the conscious mind. So how do wake up that part of Moses that lies within each of us? By waking ourselves. And how do you wake yourself? By finding someone in whom Moses is already awake. The Rebbe taught us that only the awakened can wake others. This is the final lesson to be learned from the birth, life, and death of Moses, Our Teacher: Awake the Moses within you. If you’re already awake, wake others. When all of us truly connect to the spark of Moses within each of us, only then can his fight for the end of all exiles truly see fruition.
May you all be blessed with the awakening of the spark of Moses in your soul, and with the final redemption of our people with the coming of Moshiach now!