by Sam Woodward
In last week’s episode of Shemot, Bnei Israel believes that they have met their hero Moshe. Moshe tells them that Hashem has heard them, remembered them, and seen their unhappiness. Moshe then goes to Pharaoh to demand that he let the people go. But, instead of Pharaoh listening to Moshe, and letting the people go, he increases their work, making the people doubt Moshe, and causing Moshe to go back to Hashem and ask “what went wrong?” First, he wonders if the people have erred, and then he wonders if he might have erred.
This week’s Torah portion begins with Hashem answering Moshe that that the people have not erred. The covenant made with Avraham to receive ארץ כנען will be fulfilled. Hashem repeats that he has heard the people, remembered the covenant, and will take them out of Egypt. Relieved, Moshe rushes to tell Bnei Yisroel.”וידבר משה כן אל בני ישראל” But Bnei Yisroel did not listen to Moshe, because of their shortness of spirit and their hard work. ולא שעמו אל משה” “מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה. This was not the response Moshe had expected. Moshe, again, wonders if perhaps he is not doing this right. Can the people not hear him because of the way he talks?
But the words of the Torah don’t say that Bnei Israel can’t understand Moshe, it says they don’t listen because of קצר רוח– shortness of spirit– ומעבדה קשה –and from hard work. This is easy to believe. Wouldn’t it be hard for you to believe and be hopeful about a promise that hadn’t come true before? Moshe had already gone to Pharaoh, but all that had done was get them more work. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice….
Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz asks “if Bnei Yisroel were working so hard, then wouldn’t they cling to any shred of hope?” He believed that a true leader hears, listens and understands his people. His explanation, for why the people didn’t listen to Moshe, is that they didn’t think Moshe understood them, and therefore, was not really their leader. Moshe did not seem to come from the people or share in their burdens. Easy for Moshe to be all cheery and hopeful from his privileged position, but try to keep that attitude from under a load of straw and see how well you do.
Even though the Torah and commentaries understand that the people couldn’t hear Moshe because of who they were, what they were experiencing and/or what they thought of Moshe, Moshe believed that somehow HE was the one responsible for the communication failure.
I think that Moshe thought that if he did what Hashem asked him to, then everything would suddenly be clear to everyone, even Pharaoh, and that freeing Bnei Yisroel would be easy. I can understand that. In my family, as the oldest I am supposed to be a sort of leader to my brothers and lead them out of trouble. Have you ever tried to help someone – like with their homework or try to settle a fight only to be yelled at???? Just because you’re doing the right thing doesn’t mean it will go smoothly, or go the way you expect. And sometimes, it doesn’t even seem to help the people we love. But, it doesn’t mean that you should give up. This Parsha shows us that doing the right thing is not always short or easy, and what you are doing might not even be appreciated by others.
And how do we know if we are doing what Hashem asks? Moshe had it easy. Hashem talked to him. And yet he still blamed himself when it didn’t go the way he thought. Even after Hashem has reassured Moshe that all is going according to plan, and that it is the people that aren’t listening, Moshe wonders if there isn’t some way that he can succeed in helping the people understand, or be comforted.
Becoming a bar mitzvah is about becoming old enough to be a leader. And this Parsha has taught me some interesting things about being a leader. First, it tells me that even if I do what I believe Hashem wants me to do, it may not be easy, or seem to work, or be recognized by anyone else.
Second, it has taught me that when a situation doesn’t go right, there are many different factors to consider about why it’s not going right. It could be because the goal or circumstance has changed, like when Moshe thought that maybe Hashem changed his mind about the covenant with the people. Or, it might be because the people you are working with can’t see what it is you’re trying to do. I can try to explain algebra to my youngest brother, but I’m pretty sure that he’s not old enough to understand. And, he has lots of other things to learn first before he can try to understand. But even if you think you know why a situation isn’t working, it is still a good quality for a leader to wonder if they aren’t saying the right things, in the right way, and at the right time. Good leaders know that they aren’t perfect.
This dvar was inspired by the word SHEMA in the verse. SHEMA means both to hear and to listen. I learned that a good leader has to both hear and listen. Hearing is about taking in the words, while listening is about understanding them. A leader has to be available to the people and hear what the people are saying. But a good leader also has to listen to what they are saying and sometimes go beyond listening to the words, to listening to the tone of the words, the body language and to know what the person is actually saying, even when they say the opposite. My brothers often say things they don’t mean, like “I HATE YOU”, but what they mean is “YOU HURT ME, DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT ME?”
Finally, I learned that a good leader not only hears and listens but is one with his people – feels their pain and feels their joy. Even though Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz thought the people didn’t accept Moshe as a leader because they didn’t see him as one of them, the Midrash says, that Moshe had worked as a slave. So, a good leader should also share their history, and feelings and thoughts. Maybe if Moshe had, Bnei Yisroel would have accepted him and would have listened to him.
Let my journey begin. Shabbat Shalom.
Yasher koach, Sam! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.