January 15, 2004
Under the Circumstances
Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman, suffered from polio as a child and ever since has been in a wheelchair. On one occasion, while performing a violin concerto, one of the strings broke. It occurred in the very first movement with an audible ping. Everyone waited to see what he would do. With astonishing virtuosity, he continued as if nothing had happened, playing through to the finale using only the remaining three strings.
The applause, as the concerto ended, was tumultuous, not only for his performance but for his composure in continuing, undaunted. As the noise subsided, Perlman, sitting in his wheelchair -- a symbol of his courage -- summarized his feat in a single sentence: "Our job is to make music with what remains."
Leadership comes in many guises. Sometimes it requires ingenuity, the ability to seize the moment, to rise above despair, to provide harmonious melody despite adverse circumstances.
In this week's Torah reading God chooses Moses as the man to lead the Jews out of their despair in Egypt. What was there about Moses that caused God to choose him for the single most important mission ever assigned a human being?
A senior colleague once pointed out to me that the answer lies in the story of the Burning Bush. Quoting the Midrash, he noted that Moses was the only one who stopped to investigate why the fire did not consume the bush. Many people passed by this phenomenon, but everyone else was too busy to inquire. When God witnessed this, he chose Moses as the leader.
I wish, however, to suggest another moment in Moses' life that I believe proved the defining moment.
The Torah recounts that one day Moses left the palace where he was raised and went for a stroll around town.
On his walk he noticed "an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man" (Exodus 2:11). So what did Moses do? "He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Exodus 2:12).
The 19th-century biblical commentator, Rabbi Ya'akov Tzvei Mecklenburg, in his "Haketav Vehakabbalah," states that it is wrong to read this verse as if Moses simply took the law into his own hands; tried the man on his own, convicted him and killed him. Rather, Moses looked around to see if anyone else cared. The attack on the Jewish man took place in clear daylight in the midst of the community. Moses looked around to see if anyone of importance would stand up and protect the Jew. He looked everywhere but he couldn't find an "ish," a man. Ish always is used in the Bible to refer to an important dignitary. But none came to save the Jew. Moses did what he had to do under the circumstances. He acted like a leader and he fought back.
It was at this moment, I believe, that God said, "That's my man. He will be the leader of the Jewish people."
Moses won God's approval because he didn't stop leading when the circumstances were terrible. Rather, he used his ingenuity and responded accordingly.
Once again our people are ripe for such leadership. We need men and women who are willing to stand up and use their ingenuity on behalf of the Jewish people. With this type of leadership, we can provide a symphony of courage for Jewish life.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.