Drash on Parashat Shemot 2013

Humility and Chutzpah
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, NSW

In discussing Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this week’s parashah, our sages weigh in on the question:  What makes a leader?  I have spent the past year—my final year of seminary—wrestling with (okay, obsessing over) this same question, albeit masked in different wording:  “What does ‘ordination’ mean?” I asked every one of my professors and rabbis.  From my survey, two views in particular stand out: that ordination as a rabbi means (1) that I must now size myself up against the great and accomplished sages of generations past who bore the same title, taking care not to grow haughty; and (2) that when others turn to me in need of a rabbi, I must recognize that that role is now my role and rise to the occasion.  These two perspectives strike me not because they are any more profound than the others I heard, but because they seem to stand in such tension with one another, the former calling for great humility, the latter for something more chutzpadik.

Interestingly, like my professors, our ancient sages brought to light this same tension as they discussed why Moses rabbeinu (the first ordinee?) was chosen by God to lead the people Israel.  One midrash holds that “when the Holy One…revealed Himself to Moses from the midst of the thorn-bush, the latter hid his face from Him [Exodus 3:6]… Because of this, the Holy One…said to him, ‘Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt’” [Ex. 3:10].[i]  This is but one of many midrashim that link Moses’ humility to his worthiness as a leader.  Moses was called to lead because he was humble.

The rabbinic emphasis on the importance of humility in a leader is found throughout our classic texts,[ii] including my personal favorite from the Talmud: “One should not appoint a leader over a community unless he has a basket of bugs hanging behind him, so that if he becomes arrogant, people may say to him, ‘Look behind you!’”[iii]  Yet, at the same time, the sages disapprove of excessive humility, which might keep one from rising to the occasion when his or her leadership is called for, as our previous midrash continues: “At the Red Sea [Moses] stood aside, and the Holy One…said to him, ‘You lift up your rod…’ as if to say: ‘If you will not divide it, no one else will.’  At Sinai too, Moses stood aside…[and] in the Tent of Meeting he stood aside, until the Holy One…said to him: ‘Until when will you degrade yourself?  The hour demands only you!’”[iv]  Humility is essential and admirable, our sages teach, but so is the ability to recognize when you just might be the “man of the hour.” 

This is the age-old tension.  These are the guidelines that—for all their generality and contradiction—define what makes a leader in our tradition.  Humility and chutzpah.  In this week’s parashah, God demands both of His chosen leader, and He will not take “no” for an answer.

[i] Lev. Rabbah 1:5

[ii] See also Lev. Rabbah 1:7; B. Meg. 13b; B. Ber. 55a; PR 22:4; B. Hag. 5b; and M. Avot 1:9.

[iii] B. Yoma 22b

[iv] Lev. Rabbah 1:7

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