True leaders leave behind legacies. If we want to know which traits we should develop and look for in future Jewish leaders, we need only to look to our past. Much of what shapes a leader is the lives they led. Experiences lead to the creation of a leader. Leadership is not something that can be passed on, it is something that has to be acquired.
Moses was arguably the greatest Jewish leader of all time. His life left us with models and lessons for Jewish leadership. Moses developed into the leader he was because of the way he learned and experienced life, internalizing lessons at each stage.
Moses’s beginning was difficult. He was sent away from his mother, raised as an Egyptian, and did not know the basics of his Jewish identity. What prompted him to take action? “Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11–12) Moses knew he was a Jew, but nothing more. When he went out to see his people, his perspective changed. This led him to action. He always had the knowledge, but only after he saw firsthand the suffering of his people did he act.
Later, Moses became a shepherd for his father-in-law. The Midrash (Sh’mot Raba 2:2) recounts an episode that revealed Moses’s potential to God: once as Moses was shepherding, a lamb ran away from the flock. Moses ran after it until it reached a place to drink. As Moses approached the lamb, he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You must be tired.” So he put the lamb on his shoulders and carried him back. God said, “You tend the flock which belongs to a human with such compassion. In your life you will tend My flock – Israel.”
Moses exceeded all expectations as a leader. However, despite his greatness, he was denied the opportunity of fulfilling his dream to lead his people into Israel. The Midrash (D’varim Raba 9:9) relates Moses’s last attempt to change his fate. God was ready to take Moses from the world. Moses said, “Let Joshua lead the Jews and allow me to live.” God accepted on condition that Moses would forfeit his role as leader and allow Joshua to replace him. When they went to the tent of meeting where the pillar of cloud descended and spoke to Joshua, Moses asked Joshua what was said. Joshua answered,“When what was said was revealed to you, was I told what was said?”At that moment Moses cried, “Let me die 100 times rather than suffer this one pang of jealousy that I now feel!”
As a leader Moses had many experiences that shaped him—some he initiated, others he found himself in or were tests from God. Each time, Moses took his firsthand experience and learned and changed. A Jewish leader is someone who not only learns from every situation, but also seeks out situations from which he/she can learn.
Service learning is a model from which to gain firsthand experiences. Learning through service allows us to contextualize our knowledge through experience. Initiating and engaging in this type of learning can inspire and motivate action. Experiences create a synthesis of knowledge, emotion and action. When one takes action with this fusion, it not only leads one to learn more, but creates a foundation for others to build upon.
Moses wanted to know who he was, so he went out to his people and then took action. Moses knew that a lamb ran away, so he followed it and carried it back. Moses was told he would no longer lead, but only once he felt jealousy, did he recognize that his time to lead was over. While these lessons are integral to being a Jewish leader, reading them or knowing them is not enough. Ultimately these experiences lead one to act.
There is no complete working definition for how to become a Jewish leader, but seeking experiences from which to grow is integral. The qualities that Moses embodied allowed him to become our leader as we became a nation. However, it was his approach to seeking out learning and growing from experiences that brought him to that point.
Aliza Abrams is the assistant director and Dov Pianko is a fourth-year rabbinic student and the rabbinic intern at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, Department of Service Learning and Experiential Jewish Education.