Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wavering Leader

I am the designated positive guy, the one who is supposed to maintain a positive attitude about “the other” and inspire others, but I don’t always feel inspired or positive. I grapple with the questions about the merits and prospects for success of my work bringing together Jews, Muslims, Christians and others. Of course this is ok, but it is worth thinking about again and draw inspiration from a great wavering leader, Moses.

One evening in the early 90’s in Boston, I was sitting with my family at a New England Lubavitz Yeshiva, fund-raising dinner that is honouring my grandfather Rabbi Joshua T. Kastel. I was in my twenties considering what I wanted to do with my life.

A wealthy donor of the school spoke about the first time my grandfather came to his office to ask for a donation for his school. The speakers father had been a donor and had passed away, now my grandfather was hoping the son would follow his father’s example.

The speaker saw my grandfather through the window. “Rabbi Kastel walked toward the building, then he hesitated, stopped, turned around and walked a few steps away. Then he turned around and walked toward the building again. Stopped again...he was nervous. But he really had nothing to worry about, we all loved him”.  

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According to the Midrash, my grandfather’s hesitation echoed the wavering of Moses himself. The Torah tells us that after God charged Moses with demanding freedom for the Israelites, “He was on the road, in the hotel (and God met him and sought to kill him)[i]”. The Midrash[ii] states that “Moses was entering and exiting the hotel to the road and from the road to the hotel, he was ruminating in his mind and saying if he will go to Egypt to redeem Israel or not...[iii]

One of the first doubts for Moses is when he sees two Israelites fighting each other and is afraid that perhaps they are not deserving of redemption[iv]. When Moses is called to challenge the system in Egypt he doubts his own ability, his speech defect as well as the likelihood of success and tries five times[v] to avoid this frightful responsibility.

Soon after, he is confronted with failure as the situation deteriorates[vi] and a loss of confidence by his own people.  Moses, now has a much greater problem. “Indeed the Israelites did not listen to me, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?[vii]” Moses is understood to be making the point that as a leader he draws his strength from the Israelites, his core constituency, if they are not prepared to back him, how will have the credibility with Pharaoh[viii]?  

There are two messages here. One is for me or any other leader, at times we will find that we don’t have the support of our own side, and this will make it harder to advocate externally. Unlike the suggestion of the speaker about my grandfather, not everyone is going to love a leader who is pursuing a controversial path. Moses went from a childhood in which he was loved, kissed and hugged by the princess and Grandpa Pharaoh[ix], to being ignored by the people he was sent to save. It’s tough. We need to keep at it.  The second message is to us as prospective followers; our leaders are often only as strong as the support we give them. 

[i]     Exodus 4:24,
[ii]    Midrash is not necessarily understood as factual
[iii]   Midrash Aggada, cited in Torah Shlaima Shemot p.197, it asks the question about the language in the text; "Was he on the road or at the hotel?"
[iv]   Midrash Tanchuma 10, Shemot Rabba 1:35
[v]    1) Exodus 3:11, 2) 3:13, 3) 4:1, 4) 4:10 and 5) 4:13
[vi]   Exodus 5:4-21
[vii]  Exodus 6:12
[viii] Sfas Emes,
[ix]   Shemot Rabba 1:31


  1. So true, Rabbi. I can relate to that. There have been times when we do interfaith work and only a few Muslims show up, slightly more Jews, and a slew of Christians. We have to keep plugging away though :) It is truly a bridge-building effort. We have to build the bridge in order for people to be able to walk over it :)

  2. Thank you Safiyyah. This is one of the great challenges. We were never promised it was going to be easy :)
    As you say, we need to build the bridge.