Parshas Shemos:
Jewish Leadership

By Rabbi Reuven Gross

    If we were to turn to the Torah for a biography of the great Jewish leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, we would be sorely disappointed. We read a little about the birth of Moshe, one or two incidents from his life and the next thing we know, Moshe is eighty years old and Hashem is speaking to him from the sneh or burning bush. The purpose of Torah, however, is not to teach us history, but to teach us life. We are given exactly those facts, which are needed to build a profile of the man who would lead the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) and bring them the Torah from Hashem. We therefore have to carefully consider each detail provided to us, for it is those details, and what they tell us about Moshe that were significant enough in the eyes of Hashem to cause Him to choose Moshe as the one to lead the Jewish people.

    The Torah tells us about Moshe’s background in a rather unusual way. Instead of telling us whom Moshe’s parents were the Torah first writes "And a man went forth from the House of Levi and took the daughter of Levi" and only later tell us their names. There are several reasons given for this. Some suggest that the Torah wants us to know that, as great as Moshe was, he was a human being – born of both a father and a mother. Jewish leaders are not to be deified and are not to be worshipped. Rather they are to serve as an inspiration to each and every one of us as to how great a person can become if he devotes his life to the service of Hashem.

    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an alternative explanation for the initial anonymity of Moshe’s parents. The Torah wants to emphasize one single fact – that the future leader of the Jewish people was from the Tribe of Levi on both his mother’s and his father’s sides. Levi had a quality that Moshe would need. When Yaakov blessed his sons, he referred to Shimon and Levi as achim – brothers. In the words of Rav Hirsch, they "had the feeling of communal brotherhood developed to a high degree, which, completely free of egoism, made them feel affected by any wrong done to the least important member of the family circle, as if it had been done to themselves." It was this feeling of oneness with the rest of the Jewish people that Moshe would inherit from his grandfather Levi.

    We can see this trait manifested in the few incidents from Moshe’s life that the Torah reveals to us before Hashem spoke to him. Vayetze el echav vaya'ar b'sivlosam. Moshe the young prince left the comfort of the palace to observe the plight of his brethren. The Midrash adds that he actually helped them with their slave labor. He then risks his life by killing an Egyptian who is beating a Jew. It is this same sense of responsibility that, one day later, leads him to rebuke a Jew who raised his hand against his brother in anger.

    The Torah is teaching us a great deal about the qualifications of Jewish leadership. Moshe was chosen not only because he was such a great oved Hashem. He also had to care passionately about every one of his people. Their pain was his pain. Their concerns were his concerns. This quality of Levi would stand by him throughout the forty difficult years he would spend leading Klal Yisrael.

    And so it has been throughout our history. The mark of a gadol b’Yisroel (a Jewish leader) is not only his scholarship or his meticulousness in Mitzvos. He is always someone completely dedicated to the Klal or community. His time is not his own. He is completely identified with the needs of the Klal as a whole and of each Jew in particular. In a sense, every Jewish leader has to be a Levi – at least in spirit.


Published Thursday, January 15, 1998


Rabbi Reuven Gross, an alumnus of the Chicago Community Kollel, is Rav of Congregation Sha’arei Tzedek in Chicago. He also teaches at Ida Crown Jewish Academy and Anne Blitstein Teacher’s Institute of Hebrew Theological College and gives weekly shiurim at the Kollel. If you have any questions or comments about this week's Parsha Encounters please email him at



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