There are many defining qualities of great leaders. Some make their mark by navigating their flocks through challenging periods. Others lead processes of growth and change. Still others may preside over periods of great success and bounty. In most cases, attention is paid more to their achievements than their personal qualities.
Moshe Rabbeinu, arguably the greatest leader to ever live, achieved all of the above. But his career as leader is remembered not for its litany of highlights so much as for his being the quintessential servant leader, the humblest of all men who regularly put the needs of others before his own.
Moshe is introduced to us as an infant, floating down the Nile in a reed basket. His mother, in a desperate attempt to preserve his life, had placed him in the water under the watchful eye of his sister Miriam. While bathing in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter found the Hebrew newborn. She adopted and raised him in the royal palace. As a youth, Moshe enjoyed every material comfort imaginable. Yet he knew he was not an Egyptian, and remained allied to his people and his heritage.
This sense of connection was discernible in Moshe’s first recorded action. Though pampered as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, Moshe strongly empathized with his embattled, embittered brethren, and would often come to “look at their burdens” (Shemos 2:10). One day he observed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave mercilessly. Moshe, possessor of a compassionate and tender heart, intervened and killed the oppressor.
Through this single incident, the youthful Moshe demonstrated a number of qualities that would define his future as a leader.
First, by voluntarily leaving the palace and going out to spend time with his oppressed and downtrodden brethren, Moshe displayed personal humility. He felt himself to be no better than the others, despite his privileged status. Power and privilege can lead to arrogance, but Moshe checked his ego as he exited the palace doors.
Second, he actively chose to identify and sympathize with the Hebrew slaves when there was no requirement for him to do so. He had been fortunate enough to escape the rigors of servitude at an early age, and had no obvious motive to remain involved with his people. If anything, he had reason to keep his distance, out of concern that such connection would compromise his privileged social position. But that did not stop this young leader from taking responsibility and action.
Third, in killing the Egyptian, Moshe placed the needs of another above his own. Moshe well knew the consequence of his action – state execution – before he committed it. He easily could have looked the other way. Not only was he completely unfamiliar with the victim, but such abuse had occurred often enough without any previous opposition. Was his action really going to make a difference anyway?
Moshe also had his own future with which to be concerned. Why was this man’s blood redder than his own? Besides, how would it look if the one Hebrew to whom the Egyptians had displayed open clemency would rise up and kill one of the royal taskmasters? Moshe allowed none of these justifications to prevent him from doing what he felt was right.
Because of this incident, Moshe was forced to flee for his life. Eventually he arrived in Midian. There, he came upon seven young shepherdesses, all daughters of the excommunicated priest Yisro. They had gathered at the local well to water their father’s flocks. Other shepherds maltreated them, trying to drive the girls from the area. As with the beaten slave in Egypt, Moshe stepped in and intervened on behalf of these strangers.
“But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moshe arose and rescued them and watered their flocks” (Shemos 2:17).
Soon afterward he was invited to Yisro’s home and accepted the hand of his eldest daughter, Tzipporah, in marriage.
Moshe soon began to shepherd Yisro’s flock. It was in this capacity that he experienced his first divine revelation, which also contained his initial directive.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed…. The Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave drivers, for I know their pains…. So now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Shemos 3:1-4, 7-8, 10).
His reply revealed the special qualities we noted above; deep humility and selflessness – traits would come to define him and his leadership throughout his career and for all posterity:
“But Moshe said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt’ ” (Shemos 3:11).
He remained resistant and self-effacing even as God persisted in his ask.
“Moshe said to the Lord, ‘I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words…for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue’ ” (Shemos 4:10).
Moshe was not posturing. He genuinely viewed himself inadequate for the task, and would not readily accept God’s directive if he felt there were a worthier option. So strong were his feelings on the matter that rather than accept what he felt was an unwarranted promotion, he was willing to forgo what promised to become a deep, lasting relationship with the Almighty.
Nonetheless, when the dust settled Moshe went anyway, knowing the job had to get done.
Contrary to Moshe’s assumption of a quick deliverance for the Hebrew nation, things would get much worse before any signs of improvement would be discernible. Pharaoh categorically rejected Moshe’s demand for emancipation. Moreover, he increased their workload, forcing them to meet past work quotas while also collecting the straw needed to form bricks.
Moshe easily could have walked away at that point. He had done his job in going before Pharaoh, an uncomfortable role he had never wanted to begin with. His efforts were unsuccessful and had actually caused more detriment than good. But it was not about him and his personal successes. It was about emancipating his people. So he stuck with it, and even took God to task when it appeared He was not delivering on His promise. (See Shemos 5:22-23.)
Moshe knew that leading the Hebrews out of Egypt was his calling, not a job. He would persevere until the very end.
* * * * *
In his role of God’s principal emissary to Pharaoh, Moshe dutifully represented his Maker to the Egyptian ruler. This meant brokering some very difficult and contentious talks. Minimally, it required that he deliver strong, ominous messages that were sure to raise the ire of the sovereign. Even so, he fulfilled each task with tact and perseverance, fully focused on achieving national liberation.
At the same time, the shepherd-turned-leader emerged as the caring, trusted intermediary between God and His nation. At first, Moshe’s role was limited to delivering promises of salvation. In this capacity, Moshe greatly enhanced his reputation and credibility by delivering on each of his promises. By directing the Hebrew nation to multiple wins, small at first and then eventually much larger, he became viewed as a winner, someone who would invariably find a way to victory.
Of course, leaders not only paint a vision of a better tomorrow, they also guide others through turbulent times, often in the face of resistance and second-guessing. As the Hebrews, fresh off their mass exodus from Egypt, approached the Red Sea, they saw Pharaoh and his mighty forces advancing in hot pursuit. Not surprisingly, this group of former slaves shifted quickly into panic mode, convinced they would be murdered en masse for daring to flee their masters.
Moshe reminded his people how they had gotten there and what it would take for them to continue along this path. God had orchestrated this most incredible series of events, using supernatural force to subdue the world’s greatest power. He was not about to let it all fall apart. (See Shemos 14:11-13.)
The people had understandably reverted back to a slave mentality. After all, it was what they grew up with and all they had ever known. For centuries their lives had been engulfed by suffering, doubt and defeatism. Moshe, in contrast, had never spent a single day in slavery. He was able to stay above the fray and remain calm, certain of God’s imminent salvation.
The people accepted his directive not because of his privileged background but rather because of who he was as a person. He was their humble leader, selfless in his thoughts and deeds. He had never sought his position; he served in a leadership capacity simply because God had obligated him to do so. He had sacrificed a privileged existence to serve his nation. Despite the people’s complaints, they recognized deep down just how fortunate they were to be led by this noble character. Their confidence in him was so great that they advanced readily into the Red Sea.
But the confidence was short-lived. Soon after experiencing this last miracle the people again tested their God and their leader. In response to their clamoring for sustenance, God supplied them with manna. Our tradition describes it as the most perfect of foods, fully adaptable to the most discerning pallet and completely absorbable. All that the Hebrews were required to do was collect it each morning and not leave any over. But some refused to listen.
A few weeks later, Moshe’s leadership skills were again tested. This time it occurred at the base of the single greatest stage in world history, Mount Sinai. Moshe had ascended Sinai to learn God’s Torah. He would also descend from the mountaintop with one of the most exquisite gifts ever bestowed to mankind, the Decalogue carved onto two precious stone tablets.
But trouble was brewing in the Jewish camp below. Shemos 32 relates that some members of the Hebrew nation had become anxious about what appeared to be Moshe’s protracted absence. They demanded that Aaron provide a substitute to lead them.
In a calculated risk designed to stave off further discontent and despair, Aaron complied. He collected gold ornaments from the people and fashioned them into the shape of a calf or a small bull. The image was immediately hailed by the people as a representation of the God who had brought Israel out of Egypt. Aaron then built an altar, and the following day sacrifices were offered and the people feasted and danced.
God immediately informed Moshe of the apostasy of His “stiff-necked people,” and told his faithful servant of His plans to destroy them. Moshe interceded on their behalf and persuaded God to refrain from carrying out the intended punishment.
Despite his awareness of the people’s actions, the actual the sight of the golden calf was too great for Moshe to bear. Upon witnessing the people dancing around the golden statue, he angrily smashed the tablets. He also initiated a process through which the sinners were executed for their faithlessness.
As disappointed as he was, Moshe never gave up on his nation. He straightaway began on a personal crusade to procure complete atonement, going so far as to include himself among the sinners:
“And Moshe hastened, bowed his head to the ground and prostrated himself, and said: ‘If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst [even] if they are a stiff necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession’ ” (Shemos 34:8-9).
His efforts, which included two additional forty-day trips to the summit of Sinai, resulted in the people’s complete exoneration and a new set of tablets.
* * * * *
Humility is perhaps the least understood quality a person may possess. Often it is perceived as a form of meekness, a reticence that stems from a lack of self-confidence or an unwillingness to stand up and assert oneself. But that is far from what true humility is.
Though Moshe possessed many stellar personal and leadership qualities, the Torah cites only one: humility. “The man, Moshe, was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). Guess who recorded that line about his great humility for all posterity? Moshe himself.
Moshe also wrote about his prophetic career, describing his dialogues with God as the most direct and clear communications with the divine ever experienced by man. “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom God had known face to face” (Devarim 34:10).
How could a self-effacing individual, someone who never wanted to serve as leader to begin with, pen such words about himself? It would be difficult to suggest he was coerced to do so, considering that Moshe surely believed, very deeply, in every word he transcribed from God.
The answer is that humility does not mean denying one’s talents and abilities. Nor does it demand that a person walk around with his head bowed, suggesting inferiority. Moshe was the humblest man on earth despite the fact that he knew of God’s testimony, and regardless of his awareness that his level of prophetic achievement was historically singular.
Ultimate humility is achieved by a person who excels in good attributes but takes no credit for his greatness. He realizes his core qualities and achievements are God-given. He takes no personal credit because he assumes another person would have done the same (if not more) had he been granted the same package of qualities and opportunities.