18 Tevet 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Who is worthy of being a leader of Israel?
by Daniel Pinner
The following is excerpted from Perush HaMaccabee, a commentary on part of the Book of Exodus written by Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d. The Hebrew original was published in 5754 (1994), and the English translation, translated by Daniel Pinner, was recently published. This excerpt is from pages 519-524.
“Moshe was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the Priest of Midian. He led the flock beyond the desert, and he came to the Mountain of G-d, to Horeb” (Exodus 3:1).
G-d prepared the conditions for the redemption well ahead of time, just as He readied the (potential) redeemer well ahead of time, such that when the appointed time should come, both the redeemer himself, as well as his conditions, would be ready. Chazal said, in Midrash Lekach Tov, that “G-d created the cure before the illness”. G-d knew that the time for redemption was potentially drawing close – that is, He knew that the pre-determined period of 400 years could start with the birth of Isaac, which would bring the time of redemption closer – and He therefore appointed a potential leader.
Thus He chose Moshe and began to prepare him. Having seen Miriam’s and Jochebed’s capacity for self-sacrifice, and since Amram was a tribal chieftain, head of the Sanhedrin, possessed of an exalted personality, He therefore selected their son, Moshe, as this potential leader. He subsequently arranged matters such that Moshe would benefit from the best possible objective conditions for building up a national leader.
This is the reason that the king’s daughter discovered him in the River Nile (Exodus 2:5-6): he would benefit from a royal education, trained to be an exalted leader – for he would, one day, have to become a powerful national leader.
The Midrash says: “Whenever the Torah says about someone that ‘he was’ [in our verse, ‘he was tending…’), it means that he had been prepared for his specific mission since being created [and the Midrash cites Adam, the snake in the Garden of Eden, Noah, Joseph, and Mordechai as examples] and Moshe had been prepared for the mission of redeeming Israel. All were primed for their missions since being created” (Sh’mot Rabbah 2:4).
That is to say, each was created under circumstances which would direct him to his specific purpose (even though, clearly, all had free will). And Moshe’ circumstances – being born to an important family, being weaned and educated in the royal household, being free, never being enslaved – prepared him for his pre-ordained mission, which was to be Israel’s redeemer. Subsequently, when Moshe also demonstrated love of Israel and self-sacrifice, when he relinquished his material wealth and status and escaped to Midian – then G-d’s decision to choose him as redeemer was finalized. After all, Moshe did all this with neither prophecy nor Divine revelation.
In the words of the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, Spain, Italy, and Corfu, 1437-1508): “G-d’s Glory did not descend upon him while he was yet in the royal court with Pharaoh’s daughter, nor when he went out to his brothers in Egypt…nor throughout the time that he ruled in the land of Cush [Ethiopia]”.
Clearly, all that Moshe did, he did entirely out of his own free choice, which was why G-d finalized His choice of Moshe as redeemer.
But Moshe had not yet achieved the spiritual depth, the broadness of his own soul, the depths of thought and understanding, nor yet the personal experience of everyday toil and worries. And only a person in exile can understand hardship and worry. G-d therefore brought Moshe to exile in Midian. There he was poor, dependent upon a stranger; and there he was a shepherd, which led him to many great qualities – as was the case with all the early great leaders, all of whom were shepherds and herders.
The Midrash says: “‘Hashem tests the tzaddik’ (Psalms 11:5)… David was tested by being a shepherd, as it says, ‘And He chose David His servant…from behind the nursing ewes He brought him’ (ibid. 78:71). Amos was tested by being a shepherd, as it says, ‘And Hashem took me from behind the flock’ (Amos 7:15). Moshe, too, was tested by being a shepherd” (Tanhuma Yashan, Sh’mot 10).
And Rabbeinu Bechayye (Spain, mid-13th century to 1340) explained: “Moshe took up this vocation, following the custom of the earlier tzaddikim – the righteous Abel , for example, like the forefathers, and the founders of the [twelve] tribes [of Israel]. This is to keep him distant from the city, which is liable to be acquainted with sin; also to allow him the solitude necessary for prophecy”.
And the Kli Yakar wrote: “Most of the prophets reached their prophecy through shepherding. For a prophet needs isolation, and to see the heavens, the works of G-d’s hands, as it is written, ‘When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers…’ (Psalms 8:4); for then, all his thoughts are directed towards Hashem until He pours His spirit upon him from on high. This is much rarer for one who dwells in his house, or anyone who spends most of his time in the field, other than a shepherd, most of whose time is free”.
That is to say, the prophet must perforce prepare himself and build himself up in order to be the vessel that will receive G-d’s influence. He has to broaden his ideas and concepts, to deepen his philosophical understanding, to remove all artificiality from within himself, and to internalise pure and natural truth. And he has to have leisure time: time to think, time to reflect.
He can achieve all this by his being in the bosom of nature, by seeing sunrise and sunset, by seeing the moon and the stars by night, by seeing the day-by-day life and death of plants and animals. By being alone, he can truly appreciate how tiny man really is; facing the awesome powers of nature, he becomes more humble yet; by seeing the brevity of life of men and animals, he understands better than ever “that when I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers…what is frail man that You remember him, the son of man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalms 8:4-5).
And parallel to this – together with humility and recognition of how puny man is, the knowledge of how great and awesome G-d is sprouts within him. He sheds all vanities, all falsehood, all materialistic ambitions, by understanding how unimportant and transient they really are. And in a deep and serious soul like this, the Divine Spirit can reside.
More than this: G-d ordained that Moshe be a shepherd because shepherding is physically hard work. Jacob said, “Piercing heat consumed me by day, and ice by night, and my sleep was absent from my eyes” (Genesis 31:40); and any leader can develop his soul only through trials and suffering, which refine the person of his dross.
Moreover, this will enable him to understand the suffering that another person is undergoing, and he will have a burning desire to liberate the other person from his sorrow. In the words of the Talmud: “One who lives off the labour of his own hands is greater than one who fears G-d” (Berakhot 8a).
The Midrash further says: “The Shekhinah rested over Moshe only because of his physical labour” (Midrash Gadol u-G’dulah Chapter 14, as quoted in the Torah Shleimah Chapter 6).
The Torah Shleimah (ibid.) also quotes Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 20) as saying: “Beloved is physical labour, for all the prophets performed it”. The importance of physical labour is that the person who performs it gives, and does not merely take, like a parasite.
Furthermore, one whose sustenance comes from physical labour learns to trust in G-d: “Why was the oppression of the tzaddikim mentioned first? – To make known to subsequent generations that even though those early generations were impoverished, they trusted in their Creator. They therefore acquired their lives in this world and their lives in the World to Come” (Torah Shleimah, ibid.).
Apart from all these attributes, shepherding tests the individual and infuses him with compassion for G-d’s creatures, for His creation – and G-d thereby selects the leader. The Midrash says: “G-d tested Moshe only by his shepherding… Once a kid ran away [from Moshe], and he ran after it… When it reached a shady place among the rocks, it found a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moshe reached it, he said: I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty, and now you are tired. He lifted it up onto his shoulders, and started walking. G-d said: You have the compassion necessary to lead a flock of flesh and blood thus. By your life! You will also shepherd My flock, Israel” (Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2).
And the Zohar says: “The shepherd who shepherds the flock – when the ewes give birth he holds the lambs to his breast so that they do not bleat and cry, and leads them after their mother, and has compassion on them. So too with a leader of Israel: he has to rule them compassionately, and not cruelly…, protecting them from the Gentile nations, from earthly judgement and heavenly judgement, and showing them the way to eternal life in the World to Come” (Zohar, Volume 2, Parashat Sh’mot 21a).
And in the words of the Abarbanel: “For the Congregation of Hashem is like a flock. And the shepherd who…leads His flock in mercy, and who deprives his eyes of sleep to guard the flock – he is the one who is worthy of shepherding [the Congregation of] Jacob”.
Take careful note of all the above, and know what a leader of Israel must be, how difficult this task is, how much it demands of the person. Remember the words of the prophet: “My sheep have been despoiled, and My sheep have become food for all the beasts of the field, because there was no shepherd and My shepherds did not seek the welfare of My sheep; because the shepherds tended themselves, but My flock they did not tend – therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of Hashem:…Behold, I am against the shepherds” (Ezekiel 34:8-10).
Let every shepherd and leader of Israel heed these words and take them to heart, and let him know that all the nation’s problems and sufferings – both the physical and the spiritual – are cast upon his shoulders. His life is no longer his own, and he is obligated to sacrifice himself for his people. And one who uses his authority as a tool for his own advancement will one day face judgement for that. And also, one who ignores the physical sufferings of the nation as a whole on the argument that he is “occupied with the Torah” will, too, face judgement. And if a shepherd is not willing to risk his life for his flock, then his life is forfeit.