Com­pas­sion and lead­er­ship

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - SH­MUEL RABI­NOWITZ The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

The first part of the Book of Ex­o­dus, which we be­gin read­ing this week, deals with a dark pe­riod when our fore­fa­thers were en­slaved in Egypt. Dur­ing this time, an adopted child grew up in the palace of the Egyp­tian king, Pharaoh, hav­ing been brought there from the banks of the Nile by the king’s daugh­ter. His name was Moses. He was one of the Chil­dren of Is­rael, and when he grew up and be­came aware of his roots, he went to help his broth­ers op­pose the Egyp­tian en­slave­ment.

As a re­sult, his life was threat­ened and he was forced to es­cape to an­other coun­try, Mid­ian, where he mar­ried Zip­po­rah, had two sons with her, and worked as a shep­herd for Jethro, his fa­ther-in-law.

Our To­rah por­tion tells us that one day, Moses was herd­ing sheep when he sud­denly saw an amaz­ing sight: a thorny bush was on fire but not get­ting burned. Moses was shocked by this un­usual sight, ap­proached the bush, and heard the voice of God from in­side the fire telling him to re­turn to Egypt, ap­pear be­fore Pharaoh as the leader of the Chil­dren of Is­rael, and de­mand that he set them free.

The sages of the midrash said that the men­tion of Moses work­ing as a shep­herd hinted at a trait for which he was cho­sen to lead the Jew­ish na­tion and lib­er­ate it from Egypt:

“Our teach­ers have said: Once, while Moses was tend­ing [his fa­ther-in-law] Jethro’s sheep, one of the sheep ran away. Moses ran after it un­til it reached a small, shaded place. There, the lamb came across a

There is one more [lead­er­ship] trait that is re­vealed to us by this story of Moses and the sheep: com­pas­sion

pool and be­gan to drink. As Moses ap­proached the lamb, he said, ‘I did not know you ran away be­cause you were thirsty. You are so ex­hausted!’ He then put the lamb on his shoul­ders and car­ried him back. The Holy One said, ‘Since you tend the sheep of hu­man be­ings with such com­pas­sion, you shall be the shep­herd of My sheep, Is­rael’” (Ex­o­dus Raba 2:2).

It is sim­i­larly told that King David herded his fa­ther’s flock and was cho­sen for the monar­chy as a re­sult of his com­pas­sion for weak sheep.

Lead­er­ship re­quires many traits. A leader must be coura­geous, ra­tio­nal, even­handed. It is also im­por­tant that he be car­ing and con­sid­er­ate. And it is cer­tainly ben­e­fi­cial if the leader has abil­i­ties to lis­ten, co­op­er­ate, del­e­gate re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and work as part of a team. Of course, these are only some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ideal leader. It is doubt­ful that there has ever been a leader in his­tory that had all these won­der­ful qual­i­ties. And yet the more of these im­por­tant traits a leader can ac­quire, the bet­ter off the na­tion is that he is lead­ing.

BUT THERE is one more trait that is re­vealed to us by this story of Moses and the sheep: com­pas­sion. In or­der to have com­pas­sion for a sheep, one does not re­quire much courage or even great wis­dom. Com­pas­sion stems from a sen­si­tive heart, a heart that senses emo­tions. The sheep that ran away from the rest of the flock caused the shep­herd to chase him, sweat­ing in the desert heat. Other shep­herds might get an­gry at the sheep, per­haps even hit­ting it. Moses catches up with the sheep and dis­cov­ers that the sheep ran away be­cause of an es­sen­tial need. The sheep was dy­ing to drink.

Com­pas­sion en­light­ens the heart and re­veals that es­cap­ing is some­times an ex­pres­sion of a thirst for some­thing. Like­wise, it is not un­com­mon to see teenagers “es­cape” – close them­selves off, rebel, re­act an­grily. Usu­ally, this causes greater stress. But com­pas­sion will help us iden­tify this es­cape as thirst for warmth, love, recog­ni­tion and ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

If we pay at­ten­tion to the won­der­ful lan­guage of the midrash, the sages teach us some­thing else about com­pas­sion. When Moses sees the thirsty sheep, he takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sit­u­a­tion: “I did not know you ran away be­cause you were thirsty!” The shep­herd should no­tice when his sheep is thirsty and see to it that that thirst can be quenched. Moses takes re­spon­si­bil­ity and un­der­stands that per­haps the es­cape oc­curred due to his neg­li­gence.

Lead­ers carry a great deal of re­spon­si­bil­ity, whether it is a monarch, as was com­mon in the days of the Bi­ble and rare to­day, or a leader cho­sen demo­crat­i­cally. Ul­ti­mately, a leader has power and he must use it cor­rectly, ef­fi­ciently, re­spon­si­bly and eth­i­cally.

Par­ents are lead­ers as well. They serve as role mod­els for their chil­dren, young and old, and make de­ci­sions that im­pact the char­ac­ter of the fam­ily home. There is a prin­ci­ple com­mon to the leader of a na­tion, the leader a com­mu­nity and the leader a fam­ily – com­pas­sion must guide their steps.

(Li­brary of Congress)

[LIKE MOSES,] ‘it is sim­i­larly told that King David herded his fa­ther’s flock and was cho­sen for the monar­chy as a re­sult of his com­pas­sion for weak sheep.’

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