Thursday, January 22, 2009

Moshe, Obama and the Cult of Personality (Derashah: Vaera 5769)

As I watched the crowd shots at the Inauguration this past week, and I listened to people describing their expectations for the Obama presidency, I was forcefully reminded of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's comments on our parshah.

The parshah begins with Moshe's frustration and his outburst at Gd - "Why did You send me to Paroh?" Moshe demands to know. "From the moment I came to Paroh, he made things worse for this nation - and You, Gd, You have not saved Your nation!" To which Gd responds by telling Moshe to return to Paroh - but then the Torah interposes a genealogy of Moshe and Aharon:

Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehat and Merari.
Gershon's kids were Livni and Shimi.
Kehat's children were Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel.
Merari's sons were Machli and Mushi.
Amram married Yocheved, and she gave birth to Miriam, Aharon and Moshe.

Why does the Torah include this genealogy; what are we meant to learn here?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explained, in a fascinating polemic, that the Torah presents this record of the ancestry of Moshe and Aharon in order to vaccinate the Jew against a theological disease which would ultimately infect Christianity: "So that, for all time, their absolutely human origin, and the absolutely ordinary human nature of their beings, should be firmly established. We know well enough how, in later times, a Jew whose genealogical table was not available... came to be considered by nations as begotten of Gd, and to doubt his divinity became a capital crime."

In other words: The Torah presents Moshe's pedigree lest we come to believe, through the miracles he would engineer and the charismatic personality he would bring to bear, that he was somehow a deity.

The Jews of that day wanted a deity for a leader. When Moshe disappears to receive the Torah, the Jews approach Aharon, seeking a new leader. They say to Aharon, "קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כי זה משה האיש אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים לא ידענו מה היה לו, Make a god to go before us, because we do not know what happened to Moshe the man who brought us up from Egypt." The Jewish people are dissatisfied with this all-too-mortal leader; they would be led by a god. And so HaShem stresses, at the outset, that their leader is but a human being, born of human parents.

But there is more here. I believe that beyond concern for deifying Moshe, HaShem is also concerned that this nascent nation will act in the manner of children everywhere, shirking responsibility with the expectation that their parent, Moshe, will take care of matters on their behalf, achieving feats of righteousness in their name, protecting them from the consequences of their actions, leading them along the spiritual equivalent of the Bunny slope toward a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moshe does play a parental role; as he says forthrightly, he is a nursemaid carrying a nurseling. That's why Moshe was selected in the first place, per one midrash; Moshe was chosen because of the way he cared, as a shepherd, about every sheep in his flock. This type of parental leader was necessary at this stage, to introduce a nation of slaves to their spiritual and national potential as a parent will nurture a child through adolescence and into realization of his strengths and powers.

But with that positive parental role comes the negative, adjunct possibility that the Jewish nation will become dependent upon their leader, viewing him as the solution for all of their problems. And, in truth, that did happen. This man who had said, "They will never believe me, they will never trust that Gd spoke with me," would become the parent for every national need, from food to water to military leadership, as well as the righteous protector, religious proxy for a sinful edah.

And so the Torah, at this early stage, takes pains to inform the Jew: Moshe is no superhuman individual, capable of shouldering the burdens of a nation. The Jewish people, in that generation and for all time, will need to take responsibility for their own actions, will need to grow into their role as a special nation and meet the challenges themselves.

This same concern - the possibility of relying on a leader to too great an extent - was, in fact, a problem which appeared repeatedly in Jewish history.

* Jews flocked to numerous false messiahs down through the ages, from Bar Kochba to Shabbtai Tzvi to many lesser figures in between. It is not that we are feeble-minded or beset with an unthinking gullibility. Rather, the offer of a man who bears our sins is attractive for people who are tired of bearing their own.

* Even short of Mashiach, various Jewish sects have long embraced leaders and accepted, without question, the notion that their leader's righteousness could somehow serve as a substitute for their own, extending mystical philosophies of leadership well beyond their authors' intent. Whether the chassid who goes too far with his Rebbe, or the Sephardi Jew who does the same with his Chacham, some Jews have adopted personal paths which their leaders would never have recommended, placing their leaders' portraits in their homes and businesses but failing to emulate the lifestyles of those much-admired icons.

This is a grave risk. Humility is certainly appropriate. Subordination of our will to the guidance of someone who knows us and who knows Torah is certainly appropriate. But the abdication of responsibility, with the expectation that another's righteousness will stand in our stead, that another will act in our place - this is anathema to the personal responsibility which permeates every nook and cranny of the Torah's moral mandate.

This morning's listing of Moshe's genealogy is only the beginning of the Torah's response to that abdication of responsibility:

* We noted last year, on Parshat Shoftim, that the Torah presents us with many models of leadership - Melech and Kohen, Shofet and Navi. But we also noted that all of these positions are presented as בדיעבד, concessions to a human need for intermediaries, and not an ideal. In the ideal world, all of us are leaders in our own right.

* The gemara was particularly concerned with the embrace of false messiahs, and declared, תיפח עצמותן של מחשבי קיצין, Cursed be those who formulate calculations of when Mashiach will arrive! Rather than play games of mathematics in a daydream of future irresponsibility, better to expend our energy in action!

We, in our own lives, are expected to steer clear of the mistake anticipated in this morning's parshah, to understand that we cannot look to leaders, living or deceased, past or present or future, to act on our behalf.

Our organizations - shul, school, any of them - dare not depend on a single person's inspiration and perspiration; all of us bear the responsibility of working for the betterment of the community. And the same is true for our Judaism; rather than wait for others to burden us with guilt or bodily drag us to righteousness, we must recognize that Moshe was as human as the rest of us, and that neither he nor any of his spiritual heirs will be able to do for us that which we will not do for ourselves.

President Obama may turn out to be as good as his backers claim, but as he has said himself, he will never be a nation's savior; a nation must be motivated to save itself. The same is true for the Jewish people under Moshe, and today.

Our redemptions, Messianic and otherwise, will come when we recognize that no human being can bring it one single second nearer for us. As the gemara says, redemption will come when we recognize אין לנו על מי להשען אלא על אבינו שבשמים, that rather than depend on Moshes or Messiahs or Presidents to act on our behalf, the only One upon whom we can depend is HaShem - and HaShem has already handed us the keys to our own redemption, and is waiting for us to put them to use.


1. The gemara on אין לנו על מי להשען is at the end of Sotah, as I recall. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's note is in his commentary to Chumash. He also discusses why the Torah brings the genealogy of Shevet Reuven and Shevet Shimon, but I didn't want to get sidetracked here.

2. Of course, the Torah also provides the genealogy of Aharon here, and for the same reason, but adding Aharon and his own conflicts as a "parent" to the nation to this derashah would have made it overly complicated, albeit more interesting to me.

3. A question: Is the Torah really addressing the Jew in the wilderness, of that generation, with this concern? Or is it addressing us? I suspect the latter.

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