Family Matters

Struggling with Leadership: A Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah by Elijah Caro

The following d’var torah on Parashat Va’era was offered by Elijah Caro on the Shabbat celebrating his becoming a Bar Mitzvah

Raise your hand if you’ve seen the 1956 movie The 10 Commandments starring Charlton Heston as Moses? Well, I’ve never seen that movie, but I did see a cartoon version of the Exodus story, and I think the image of Moses is pretty much the same. Moses is portrayed as the ultimate heroic figure, a tall, powerful, confident man with long white hair, a long white beard, and wearing a white tunic.

He confronts Pharaoh and leads the Israelites across the sea and out of Egypt. To prove part of my point, I googled Charlton Heston and found out he is 6 foot 3.

We also see that same image of Moses in art. For example, turn around and look at the images of Moses in the etched glass over the door to the sanctuary.

Did you ever stop to think that our idea of Moses is based more on images from art and the movies then on the actual written description of Moses in the Torah? That idea of Moses is so powerful that it’s hard to know if it was already there before 1956, and if it affected the way the makers of the Ten Commandments portrayed him, or if it is the movie that affected the way we see Moses up until today.

My Torah portion is about that moment in the Book of Exodus when God tells Moses you must speak to Pharaoh and tell him to release the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

And to my surprise, Moses’s first reaction to this commandment was to refuse God.

And, Moses said no to God in a very peculiar way. Here is what he said, “If the children of Israel do not hearken to me, then how will Pharaoh hearken to me, if I am of foreskinned lips?”

Foreskinned lips—that is a very odd phrase, isn’t it?

It is something that really caught my attention when I was discussing my Torah portion with Rabbi Justin. I wanted to understand it and be able to explain it as part of my D’var Torah. So this is my understanding: Another way to think about or say foreskinned lips is to say uncircumcised lips.

So what does that mean? Well if we take lips to be a metaphor for speech and uncircumcised to mean afraid, or not ready to remove the barrier that God put in front of Moses, then for Moses to say to God “I cannot speak to the Pharaoh on your behalf because I am of foreskinned lips” could mean, I do not feel acceptable or ready to speak for God.  I am afraid.

So, it is really interesting to me that Moses, who we all think about as the ultimate leader, was actually unsure of his abilities. And, that got me thinking about the qualities of a leader.

Do you have to be confident to be a good leader?   Maybe not… And if not, what qualities do you need?

Well we might start by asking what leadership qualities did God see in Moses when he chose him to lead the people of Egypt?

There is another story about Moses that is not in my Torah portion that I think helps answer this question: It is a story the Rabbi told me about when Moses was a shepherd and one of his sheep ran away. Instead of looking after the rest of the flock, Moses chased after the one sheep way, way out in the wilderness, and when he finally caught up with the sheep, he saw it was drinking by a stream and Moses said “Oh I see why you ran away, you were thirsty because I didn’t give you enough water, I’m sorry.” And Moses carried the sheep all the way back to the flock.

Now probably a good leader would have looked after the rest of the flock instead of just the one sheep, but what is important is that Moses showed humility by going after the sheep and then not getting angry at it. God saw that Moses had humility and that is why he asked him to lead the people out of Egypt.

So yes, if you are confident, that would help you to be a good leader, but if you not confident then you could still be a good leader, if you are patient, and inclusive, and always ready to listen to others. In other words, leading by your good example is one way to be a good leader.

It was very helpful for me to learn that Moses struggled to become a leader because I have also struggled to be a leader in my own life. My parents, my teachers, and my coaches often tell me that I could be, and should be, a leader. But, to be honest, most of the time I don’t really want to be a leader because I am afraid. I am afraid that I will mess up, or that people won’t listen to me. I don’t always know what to do in certain situations to be a leader so it’s hard.

It has given me some confidence to think about Moses and how he was not perfect and how he had a very hard time becoming a leader. With the real example of Moses from the Torah, not the image of Moses, I now know that I can mess up, and it gives me confidence to try to lead others, because I know that no one is perfect. It is OK to have fears and doubts and that is normal and maybe even good. Remember God chose Moses because he had humility.

So now, I want to go back to the first image I gave you of a confident, fearless Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments, and I want to leave you with one last question.

If we now know that Moses was actually a reluctant leader, and not always an ideal leader, then why are there so many images out there of Moses as a powerful and confident leader? One of the things that the Rabbi and I talked about was that in our life now we tend to not let our leaders be human, and we often don’t tolerate them making mistakes. But the great thing about the images of leaders in the Torah—like Abraham and Moses—is that they were all human, and that makes them both relatable and inspirational.

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