Posted By The Stash

In our reading, Moses is reunited with his family courtesy of his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro comes both to return his daughter, Tzippora and her children to Moses, and to see how his son-in-law is doing as a leader. In the opening few verses, we discover an interesting fact not discussed earlier in the narrative. “And Moses’ father-in-law had taken in Moses’ wife Tzippora, after she had been sent away.” When had this taken place? We find no mention of it in the narrative of the plagues and the subsequent exodus.

Rashi brings a midrash that suggests that when Aaron met Moses at Mount Sinai after Moses’ encounter with G-d at the Burning Bush, an interesting reunion took place. After Aaron found out that this was Moses’ family, he asked where they were going. “They are returning with me to Egypt,” replied Moses. Aaron was shocked. “Why would you do that—we are upset about the fate of our children in Egypt, and you want to bring yours there!?” Moses immediately ordered Tzippora to take the children and return to Midian. But, as the Da’at Mikra points out, this raises a powerful strategic and psychological consideration: how does Moses the leader look to his people—ordering them to take risks while his family remains safe in far off Midian? We can also ask: in Sefer Bereishit we read about the lives of the Avot and Imahot in great detail, while in Shmot, this is but one example of the paucity of details about Moses’ family life. Why the shift in emphasis?

The Da’at Mikra answers by observing that Moses’ career is an example of self-abnegation. He always heeded the needs of the Israelites before his own family’s. Later in this chapter Jethro will find him “judging the people from morning till evening” in the belief that he was the only person qualified and respected enough to judge in a manner that “would bring the people closer to G-d.” At Sinai, he became so close to the Divine through both self-abnegation and modesty that he was able to speak to G-d “face to face just as a person speaks to their neighbor.” When he descended from the mountain, he was so changed that he barely communicated with his family.

Such is the sobering price of Jewish leadership. The spotlight of Sinai certainly never threw much light inside Moses’ familial tent. Even this supremely modest man, who certainly neither sought nor enjoyed his fame and recognition, could not avoid the burden of standing between a stubborn group of ex-slaves and their demanding Deity. Indeed, the effect of his leadership on his family fully justified his complaint at the Bush: “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” This chapter is the last time we hear of Moses’ children. The text’s silence reverberates through history. We hear of Tzippora once more—when she is broken hearted that her husband is too busy with G-d to have time for her.

In our busy and often narcissistic world, how should we attract a new generation of Jewish communal leaders? Recruitment is getting harder all the time while needs have never been greater. People are placing a new value on “family time” and limiting their communal activities as compared with a generation ago. Day schools, synagogues, and communal organizations are finding it harder to attract and keep board members with the time and ability to properly govern them. The Moses story is a cautionary tale and there are no easy answers. Perhaps the honest admission of the cost of leadership is a first step towards finding a new type of individual who can fit the role. As our Sages said, “The task is great and the time is short….” Let us pray that honestly admitting our challenges will encourage us to assess and meet them.

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