Exodus Leadership and Confrontation: Lessons From Moses and God
It seems every few weeks a new round of headlines cover the latest eruption within the American Jewish community over Israel, the most recent including a panel-turned-spectacle at the 92nd Street Y and communal storms over policies delineating who should and shouldn’t be allowed to speak at Hillels and JCCs.
While these moments of heat and escalation capture the most press and attention, they obscure and distract us from at least two far more common, subtle and systemic obstacles to breaking through our stuck conversation on Israel.
The first is pervasive conflict-avoidance among Jewish leaders who simply want the problem to go away. Many executives and boards at large Jewish institutions go to great lengths not to “rock the boat” by quickly jumping to shut down controversy. This is understandable; when controversies escalate, it is these communal leaders who get battered from all sides, threatened with withdrawal of funding, loss of employment or damaged reputations. But in working to smooth things over, these leaders neglect to address growing communal disagreements that are simply not going away. And when one’s boat is already in turbulent waters, a don’t-rock-the-boat strategy represents a failure to help one’s community navigate through the storm.
The second obstacle, ironically, often emerges from some of the very opinion leaders seeking to elevate the Israel conversation. On the left this often takes the form of lamenting our broken discourse, while on the right and center it often involves lamenting declining Israel attachment. In either case, many of these thought leaders inadvertently reinforce the very underlying communal sickness they critique by shaming those with whom they disagree, overgeneralizing about the “establishment bubble” or the rootless “young and naïve,” and caricaturing the nuanced positions of their counterparts to make them sound like unthinking fools or haters promoting racism and/or Israel’s destruction.
There may be bona fide haters and ignoramuses in this world. But in our dysfunctional public discourse, these terms get invoked prematurely and opportunistically when there remain both room and urgent need for productive engagement between us. That productive engagement, minimally, means working to get how our counterparts understand themselves, then representing them in ways they would welcome, even when we dramatically disagree. It means refusing to characterize our opponents’ views in funhouse mirror distortions to score points or boost publicity. It means acknowledging that few, even on the far left, see themselves as calling for Israel’s “delegitimization” or destruction. And that few, even on the far right, see themselves as promoting fascism, bigotry or shutting down dissent.
We have every right to challenge these self-conceptions, but we must first demonstrate we’ve understood them on their own terms. Not to be nice or polite, but because if we continue to dismiss and misrepresent our counterparts while using the language of “opening up the conversation” or “strengthening support for Israel,” we merely feed the shutdown discourse and declining support we are trying to redress.
The dialogue between Moses and God in this week’s Torah portion has much to teach us about overcoming these patterns and obstacles. God is consumed with rage at the People of Israel for their consummate betrayal in building the Golden Calf, and instructs Moses to “let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them” (Ex. 32:10). Moses responds with a vehement challenge to God’s directive, reminding God that He delivered this people from Egypt, that He made promises to their forefathers, and that He will play right into the hands of those most eager to declare the peoples’ liberation from Egypt a failed project.
A few crucial leadership lessons emerge from their exchange.
One: Leadership demands principled confrontation, so go there. Moses doesn’t shrink from the moment. He doesn’t pretend there’s no issue. He doesn’t try to placate God, minimize or change the subject. He knows there is a crisis, and that it must be dealt with directly, openly and in a way that honors everyone. He knows everything is on the line, but rather than fearing loss of status and position, he actualizes leadership by pushing back against the very Authority who has vested him with power.
For the first time, rather than cowering before the role God has assigned to him — or acting as God’s mouthpiece — he overcomes all hesitation and doubt, to lead. It is a transformative moment of realization not only for Moses, but for God. The midrash picks up on the unusual wording of God’s words — “let Me be” — interpreting it as an entreaty to do the exact opposite, as if to say: “Please don’t let Me do this. Contend with Me; for this you have been created” (Exodus Rabbah 42:10, Rashi ad loc.).
Two: In the course of confrontation, redeem, don’t shame. How does Moses speak truth to power? Not with finger-pointing castigation, but with love, and that is why he is able to effect change. He reminds God of His own aspirations and standards, as if to say: “God, remember who You are, who You want to be, how You want to be known. Remember Your love for these people. You would not be true to Your own sacred ideals were you to cause them harm.” In rabbinic commentaries, Moses similarly holds up a redemptive mirror to the Israelites, shining a light on their goodness, showing empathy for what may have compelled their missteps, beseeching God to do the same (Exodus Rabbah 43, 44). This is what Martin Luther King Jr. did so well, every speech effectively proclaiming: “I am merely holding you up to your own values, America — your own standards of justice and holiness. I am helping you become whom you already want to be.”
Three: When wielding power, heed the wisdom of those who challenge you. Especially if your decisions could carry grave consequences. Especially if you could insulate yourself from critique. God has been telling Moses he’s a leader. He’s been preaching about covenantal commitment and justice. Now He has to choose whether to live up to all he’s been saying, or give in to His current reactive state.
God could have responded to Moses by saying: “How dare you defy Me.” Or, “These traitors can never again be My people.” Instead, though He has all the raw power to do otherwise, He listens, allows Himself to be instructed and changes course. This is by no means an easy thing to do. It requires both courage and vulnerability. Most of us discredit those who disagree with us out of hand, rather than opening our ideas to scrutiny or welcoming the kind of dialogue that just might change our minds. But here God allows Moses to return Him to the aspirational core of His own values and vision. He makes himself subservient to His own framework. It doesn’t mean there’s not a problem that must be dealt with – the people must address what they’ve done — but God allows Moses to teach Him not to let a dark moment destroy the relationships to which He’s committed Himself, or the core mission He’s set for Himself.
It is as if God wants to model the importance of authority figures owning their fallibility. A recent New York Times article connects “the dangers of certainty” to mass destruction: “We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then … the worst can happen.” This idea is intensified in rabbinic commentaries in which God claims that in learning from Moses, He wins, whereas had He won He would have lost (Pesikta Rabbati 40). And it crescendos in the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story in the Talmud, depicting God laughing joyously when humans limit His jurisdiction: “My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!” (Tractate Baba Metzia 59b). God seems to be saying, “When you challenge both Me and one another — negotiate action and truth through principled confrontation — it gives Me pleasure, sustains our relationships and leads to the most intelligent and life-supporting outcomes.”
We need more God-and-Moses dialogue as it appears in Ki Tisa in our public conversation on Israel. We need leadership willing to go toward the heat, rather than avoid it; more naming and inquiring into our differences without demeaning (in every sense) our counterparts’ ideas; more willingness to take in what others have to say, and allow it to stretch our own thinking.
Even in the aspiration to influence others’ views, we need more redemptive mirrors saying, “Here’s an opportunity to realize your own best self and true values.” These principles represent, as Moses found, the keys to effective persuasion. They also, as God models, present the risk — and opportunity — that just as we may challenge the judgments of others, so too we may need to revise our own. As in Ki Tisa, our very survival may hinge on our willingness to enter courageously into dialogue, and allow ourselves to be changed.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is an educator, facilitator and trainer working to transform conflict in the face of entrenched divisions. She is founding director of Encounter, an organization dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.