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The Burning Bush and the Bystander Effect (Shemot)

What defines a leader? It depends on who you ask. For a long time, historians spoke of “natural” leaders – men like Alexander the Great and women like Joan of Arc who seemed destined to lead from birth. Recently, however, the thinking has shifted. Abraham Lincoln was demoted in the military, struggled as a businessman, and lost several elections before leading the United States through the Civil War and abolishing slavery. Winston Churchill spoke with a lisp and failed sixth grade, but went on to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers in English history. Oprah Winfrey was put up for adoption and physically abused. She was pregnant as a teenager and was let go from several jobs. Then she became one of the most influential TV personalities and one of the most active philanthropists of the twenty-first century. What these individuals, and so many others like them, seem to demonstrate, is that most people aren’t born leaders. Most people become leaders.

They do so, experts tell us, by learning. According to contingency theorists, for instance, leaders are people who learn how to adapt to varying circumstances. According to relationship theorists, leaders are people who learn how to win affection and admiration. According to management theorists, leaders are people who learn how to motivate others. To some degree, all of these ideas are probably true: flexibility, charisma, and the ability to inspire are all important traits for a leader to possess. But what is the most important quality for a leader to possess? It’s hard to tell. As far as our tradition is concerned, the answer, believe it or not, seems to be “none of the above.”

In this week’s Torah portion, we meet the greatest leader the Jewish people have ever known: our teacher, Moshe. Moshe earned his place in history as the man who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and gave them God’s law in the wilderness. But that story starts next week. This week, we read the story of Moshe’s beginnings. In one episode, Moshe rebukes a Hebrew who is about to strike one of his kinsmen. In another, Moshe rescues seven maidens from a group of Midianite men who are harassing them. In a third, we find Moshe in the desert, shepherding a flock of cattle. Taken together, these episodes suggest that the characteristics which define Moshe’s leadership throughout his career – his passion for justice, his sense of responsibility, his empathy and his compassion – were already present at a much earlier stage. Moshe, it seems, was born to lead.

But other factors suggest that he wasn’t. Like Oprah, Moshe was adopted. Like Churchill, he suffered from a speech impediment. Like Lincoln, he failed many times before freeing the slaves. So Moshe is not the archetype of a “natural” leader. His leadership is of a sort entirely unlike anything we’re used to. He’s wildly successful, but for reasons we’d never expect.

Here, for instance, is what we’re told about Moshe the very first time we see him in 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, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moshe discovers an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. This slave, the text implies, stands to lose his life; among others, the Malbim makes that point explicitly. As a result, Moshe rushes to the slave’s defense, striking and (intentionally? unintentionally?) killing his oppressor.

This incident raises many tough questions. For our purposes, let’s assume, as most traditional commentators seem to, that Moshe’s actions were morally justified. Even so, his behavior puzzles us. Before jumping in to save the day, Moshe “turns this way and that, and sees that there is no man [present].” Why is this preliminary step necessary?

As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees it, Moshe “turns” in order to make sure that “the coast is clear:”

“Moses first glanced to each side in order to ascertain that he was alone, and only then did he dare to put his plan into action… He would not have acted had there been any witnesses present.” (Exodus 2:12, s.v. “ויפן כה וכה”)

For R. Hirsch, in other words, Moshe only acts once he’s sure that nobody is watching. In stark contrast, R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of haKetav ve’haKabbalahsuggests (ad loc.) that Moshe acts precisely because others are “watching” — watching, but not doing anything:   

“Moses thought that one of his Hebrew brothers standing in the vicinity would challenge the Egyptian and rescue his Hebrew brother from being beaten to death. But then he saw that there were no “men” there – nobody among them whose heart was pained by his brother’s anguish to the extent that he would make an effort to help him.”  

This is a fascinating interpretation — particularly, as R. Moshe Shamma notes (thank you to Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Schnall for pointing out this source) because the phrase “he saw there was no man” is used by the prophet Isaiah not once, but twice, to mean exactly what R. Mechklenburg claims it means in our passage: namely, that others are present, but that nobody is willing to offer any help. Nevertheless, R. Mecklenburg’s reading raises difficulties of its own. If, as he claims, Moshe is willing to strike the Egyptian regardless of the legal consequences involved in doing so, then why does he wait to see whether somebody else will take charge, instead of intervening immediately? The answer, we’ll suggest, cuts to the heart of what Moshe’s leadership is all about.

Following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané conducted research to try to understand how, as the New York Times reported, “thirty-eight respectable, law abiding citizens” could watch somebody stalk and stab a young woman “for over half an hour,” without calling the police. Their conclusion, which they dubbed the bystander effect, describes a most counterintuitive finding: the greater the number of witnesses to a given act of injustice, the less likely it is that anybody will intervene on behalf of the victim. In the presence of others, psychologists hypothesize, we diffuse responsibility – we assume that somebody else will take care of the problem. As the anonymous author of Sefer haHinukha thirteenth-century Italian Jewish text, so poignantly put it:

“It is well known and established that all tasks which are assigned to a designated group of people are performed as they should be; laziness, despair and bossiness are not [as readily] found in such groups. But tasks which are assigned to large groups, without there being anybody in particular designated to perform them – some group members sometimes leave the task for other group members to perform, and some group members sometimes [abnegate their responsibilities explicitly, by] command[ing] others to take care of the task for them.”  (Sefer haHinukh, Commandment 509)

The author of this passage is hundreds of years ahead of his time. Let’s combine his insights with those of Darley, Latané, and R. Mecklenburg, to piece together the scene which we have been studying, as follows:

When Moshe witnesses a Hebrew slave being beaten to death, he grows distressed. Yet he doesn’t throw himself into the situation immediately. Moshe expects, wants – searches for – somebody else to step in. But nobody does. That’s when he’s forced to separate himself from the crowd. “In a place where there are ‘no men,’” Hillel instructs us, “strive to be a man.” Moshe follows these instructions to a tee. He is not a bystander, but a leader – and not by choice, but by necessity. He neither seeks authority nor shirks responsibility. He asserts himself only when he feels that he must. This complicated attitude towards leadership is, as the incident with the Egyptian too-nearly demonstrates, Moshe’s greatest liability.

But it is also his greatest strength.

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God calls to Moshe from the burning bush, and informs him that He has chosen him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead of thanking God for honoring him with this position, however, Moshe does the unthinkable: he refuses it. With his very first words, he objects: Who am I?with his very last ones, he demands: Why not somebody else?  We’re not used to leaders who deflect leadership. Time and again, however, Moshe does just that. Our leader, we learn only on, will only lead if he believes that he is the most qualified man for the job. He readily accepts responsibility when it is in the best interest of his people for him to do so. He runs from authority when it isn’t.

Like good athletes, good leaders know when to shoot, and when to pass. “Sometimes, if you want to see a change for the better,” notes actor Clint Eastwood, “you must take things into your own hands.” But, mathematician Blaise Pascal reminds us, “we must learn our limits,” too: “we are all something, but none of us are everything.” The story of Moshe’s career is the story of balancing these two competing imperatives of leadership. When Aaron leads the people towards idolatry and when Korah leads them into rebellion, Moshe takes a stand, and reclaims the authority. But in other instances, Moshe is more than happy to share his authority. Jethro reforms the judiciary. Joshua commands the military. Eldad and Medad claim the power of prophecy. Not only does Moshe agree to this division of labor — he encourages it. Bystanders, social psychologists tell us, diffuse responsibility. Leaders, Moshe teaches us, delegate it.

Moshe knows when to step up, and he also knows when to step down. For this reason, he remains our eternal example of what leadership, at its very best, can and ought to look like. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete all of the work,” R. Tarfon tells us, “but neither are you free to desist from your share.” To be a leader is to understand precisely that.

Shabbat shalom!


1 Comment

  1. Rav Hershl Shechter once taught me that Tzniut can be applied in more ways than just clothing. People should not strive to be in a leadership position unless necessary, as in there is no one better than them to take the gap. I’d just like to add that I think that is the quality of leadership we see in Moses

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