“Houston, we have a problem.” These words that were transmitted on April 11, 1970 by astronaut Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, initiated a crisis of potential catastrophic proportions for NASA and the space program. There had been an explosion in the landing module’s cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen tanks, which provide electrical power, oxygen and water for the astronauts. Due to the explosion the spacecraft was quickly losing all of these, as well as its propulsion power. If something were not done quickly, Apollo 13 and its three astronauts would be lost. Instead of anticipating landing on the moon, the crewmembers were now wondering whether they would ever see their families again.
In charge at mission control was Flight Director Eugene Kranz. After evaluating the damage and assessing the situation, Kranz and his team realized the full extent of what they had to do. “They had to keep the astronauts alive for four days, to get home using an engine designed to land on the Moon, and to perform the hazardous reentry procedure, all with dwindling power and water” (The Leader’s Mentor, Ian Jackman, Editor, Random House New York 2005, p. 25).
After a 15-minute brainstorming session with his key people, Kranz ended with a pep talk. In no uncertain terms he let them know that, “When you leave this room, you must leave believing that this crew is coming homeFlight people have got to believe, your people have got to believe, that this crew is coming home.” Taking their lead from Kranz the NASA engineers outdid themselves. With creativity that boggles the mind every problem was solved, and the Apollo 13 crewmembers were successfully brought home.
Without detracting from the vast accomplishments of the NASA engineers, experts who have studied this case assign substantial credit to Kranz himself. It was his steadfast belief that the crewmembers could be saved, as reflected in his words and actions, which inspired and drove the engineers. Had he shown doubt, the engineers might not have exerted the effort to come up with the solutions that ultimately resolved the crisis.
We cannot emphasize enough, the importance of a leader believing that things will work out. In light of this we can understand why Moshe had to spend so many years outside of Egypt getting prepared to assume the leadership of Bnei Yisrael.
The Torah relates Moshe’s experiences when he left the palace to check on his people. Almost immediately he comes across an Egyptian, brutally beating a Jew. The passuk states (2:12): “And he looked to and fro and saw that there was no man, so he slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” Although the literal meaning of the verse is that Moshe checked to make sure nobody was watching, many commentators have understood the words as indicative of other issues.
Rashi explains that before Moshe killed the Egyptian he looked into the future to make sure that nobody righteous was destined to come forth from him. Had this been the case, Moshe would have had to weigh this factor before he killed the Egyptian.
The Netziv claims that Moshe first looked around to see if there was anybody that he could approach to summon help for the Jew. Sadly, Moshe saw that there was nobody. All of Egyptian society was indifferent to the plight of the Jews.
Other commentaries explain that even the Jews themselves were indifferent. This idea was brought home to Moshe on the following day when he was trying to break up a fight between two Jews. He was essentially told to mind his own business. Seeing this, Moshe lost faith in the Jewish people. If a people could sink so low that they not only fail to help another Jew but they assault somebody who does, then Moshe felt that they were beyond help. In response to this Moshe felt he had no choice other than to flee Egypt.
G-d, however, had other plans for Moshe. During his time in Midyan, while caring for Yitro’s sheep, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:2) describes how Moshe once followed a runaway sheep. Wondering why it fled, Moshe tracked it to a stream. Upon seeing it drink Moshe realized that the sheep was in fact tired and thirsty. It was not running away. We can envision that this incident gave Moshe a new perspective on Bnei Yisrael. Perhaps their indifference was not a sign of spiritual death but simply exhaustion.
According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, this notion was reinforced at the Burning Bush. Moshe was perplexed at the fact that although there was a fire deep inside the bush, the bush itself was not on fire nor was the deep fire getting extinguished. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that the bush symbolized the Jewish people. Although on the outside there was no fire, which represented the coldness of their slave mentality, inside there was a burning flame. “Once one penetrates into the depths of a Jew, no matter how repugnant his exterior, no matter how subordinate he is to his master, one will recognize that the Jew quests for freedom and quests for HaKadosh Baruch Hu (Noraot HaRav 8 edited by B. David Schreiber p.78).
Moshe was now ready to return to Egypt. From his experiences as a shepherd and the revelation at the Bush, he learned that Bnei Yisrael could be saved. While there would still be setbacks, Moshe’s future doubts would no longer focus on Bnei Yisrael but rather on his own ability to lead them. Moshe now had the primary ingredient of leadership – he believed in his cause.
Despite the difficult challenges they face, leaders must believe that they can succeed. Eugene Kranz captured the essence of this attitude, an attitude we should all adopt, in the title of his autobiography: Failure Is Not an Option.
Rabbi David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com