Parshat Shemot: Judaism as a Rebellion

What Makes a Great Jewish Leader?

Leadership is one of the most difficult tasks for man to undertake. It requires a rare combination of wisdom, courage, knowledge and experience. Very few people possess all of these qualities and even fewer know the art of combining them in a balanced way.

When looking into the personality of Moshe Rabbeinu, we learn an astonishing story of how he became capable of undertaking the most challenging leadership role in the history of man: liberating a few million slaves from an anti-Semitic dictatorship and transforming them into a nation of God, with the added mission of teaching mankind the highest level of ethics.

One might think that the ability to inspire a few million people to fear God would require the best religious education available, with only the finest teachers. A person of that caliber should also be holy, living in a well-protected environment into which outside heretical ideologies do not penetrate and where secularism plays no role. Only from a background like that could emerge a man who would be great enough to experience an encounter with God and receive His teachings. But in reading the story of Moshe, we are confronted with a different truth.

Moses Leaving PharaohWhen Moshe leaves Pharaoh’s palace for the first time, to visit his enslaved brothers, he is struck by the hard realities of life. Right in front of him an Egyptian strikes a Hebrew, possibly with the intention of killing him. Without hesitation, Moshe smites the Egyptian and buries him in the ground.

Reflecting on the fact that Moshe had just left Pharaoh’s home, in which he was raised for many years, we wonder what went through his mind. Whose side was he going to take? Brought up in the world of Egyptian culture, and instructed by elite Egyptian educators, possibly receiving private tutelage from Pharaoh himself to prepare him for the monarchy of Egypt in years to come, Moshe must have seen the Egyptian as a compatriot. This was a man of his own culture! Why take any action against him?

On the other hand, it would seem from the text — “he went out to his brothers” (Shemot 2:11) — that Moshe knew he was of Jewish lineage, despite being far removed from anything Jewish. He had warm feelings towards the Jews, though they were foreigners to him. Psychologists would no doubt raise the question of Moshe’s dual loyalties and how to resolve this dilemma.

A deeper reading of the verses may give us some insight. “And he (Moshe) turned this way and that way, and he saw there was no man, and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Shemot 2:12). As suggested by an unknown commentator, this may allude, albeit in an allegorical way, to the state of Moshe’s mind. Moshe suddenly realized that he was living in two worlds. While his youth was spent in the world of Egyptian culture regarding knowledge, art and religion, his heart was elsewhere. Deep down inside of him was a Jewish voice demanding the opposite of everything Egypt represented. It is for this reason that “he turned this way and that way.” Moshe realized that he was at a crossroads in his life and that “there was no man.” As long as he did not decide to which world he belonged, he was a man with neither character nor strength. He therefore killed the Egyptian man within himself and buried him in the sand.

It is this decision that turned the world on its head, steering mankind in a completely different direction. Made in the blink of an eye, this is possibly the most radical decision ever made in human history, causing both Jews and gentiles to put God at the center of their lives and commit themselves to a higher ethical mission. But Moshe must have also realized that by ending his ambivalent situation, he would be destroying his entire future. Not only would he not become the new monarch of Egypt, but he would surely turn the whole of Egypt against him, becoming a wanderer and refugee, with no money or future.

Heroism is in no way better demonstrated than by one who can say no and then calmly accept the consequences of his resistance, knowing all too well that most of the time that heroic act will vanish into oblivion. Many a great man disappeared from the map of history because others were mediocre and could not grasp his message.

Yet, contrary to Moshe’s expectations, God reveals Himself to him at the burning bush, viewing him as the man suited to be the leader of the Jewish people. Had Moshe been educated by the best teachers in a warm Jewish environment, and protected from the influences of the outside world, he would not have become the extraordinary man he was. He would have remained in Pharaoh’s palace, probably to become the next head of state in Egypt, but he would have left no legacy that would turn the word around.

What is completely surprising is that Moshe became the prototype of the ideal leader not in spite of being raised in a world of idol worship, self-worship, and total lack of morality, but because of it! He became the greatest Jewish leader ever, because it was his secular, polytheistic, and morally empty education that did the trick. It turned him into a fighter, determined to overthrow the false ideas he knew and recognized so well from the inside. It was the “rebel within” that made Moshe the leader of a nation whose function it is to fight and protest.

We Must Rebel

One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its students. Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator. We owe nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed but to those who differed. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into existence. Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols, and he was followed by his children, then by Moshe, and then by the Jewish people.

What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions the likes of which we have never known. The text includes all the radical heresies of the past, present and future. It called idol-worship an abomination, immorality an abhorrence, the worship of man a catastrophe. It protested against complacency, self-satisfaction, imitation, and the negation of the spirit. It called for radical thinking and drastic action, without compromise, even when it meant standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.

Make Changes Not ExcusesAll of this seems to be entirely lost on our religious establishment. We are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform and not stand out. We teach them that their religious leaders are great people because they are “all-right-niks” who would never think of disturbing the established religious and social norms. We teach them that they are the ideal to be emulated. By doing so, we turn our backs on authentic Judaism and convey the very opposite of what Judaism is meant to convey.

By using clichés instead of the language of opposition, we deny our students the excitement of being Jewish: excitement resulting from the realization that one makes a huge difference and takes pride in it, no matter the cost; excitement at the awareness that one is part of a great mission for which one is prepared to die, knowing that it will make the world a better place.

When we tell our children to eat kosher, we need to tell them that this is an act of disobedience against consumerism when human beings are prepared to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it is a protest against man’s arrogance in thinking that he can do it all himself. When couples observe the laws of family purity, it is a rebellion against the obsession with sex. The celebration of Shabbat must be presented as an enormous challenge to our contemporary world that believes our happiness depends on how much we produce.

As long as our religious teachers continue to teach Jewish texts as models of approval, instead of manifestations of protest against the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more of our young people to that very mediocrity.

Judaism is in its essence an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force through which the world is able to grow.

To forget this crucial element is to betray Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo Rav Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, a member of Beit Hillel, is Founder and Dean of The David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. A native of the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community of Holland, Rav Lopes Cardozo received rabbinic ordination from the Gateshead Talmudic College, studied in Israel at the Institute for Higher Rabbinical Studies of Chief Rabbi Unterman and at the Mir Yeshiva, and holds a doctorate in philosophy. In addition to teaching Jewish audiences, Rabbi Lopes Cardozo often lectures to non-Jewish groups, including Christian leaders, about comparative religion and the fundamentals of Judaism.

3 Responses to Parshat Shemot: Judaism as a Rebellion

  1. Elizabeth Kappel January 7, 2015 at 10:42 AM #

    Most interesting and enlightening presentation and thought. One aspect I did not understand. If Moshe had been educated by the best teachers in a warm Jewish environment he would not have been in a position to be ruler of Egypt, true?

  2. David Z January 16, 2015 at 9:34 PM #

    MOshe was rebelling against a foreign culture that had raised and enticed him. Not against his own Jewish culture. khaza”l tell us al tifrosh min hatsibur. And so we must balance our private individual “rebellion” with public acts. Change must be slow and conservative in Judaism, a la Edmund Burke.

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