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Parshat Vaera – Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When I went to visit the shiva of Amichai Oster ז"ל, the beloved son of Marcy Oster, one of my long term students, his fellow army unit members were sitting there. Fresh mud on their boots and dirt on their uniform, it was obvious they had come straight from the battleground and most likely returning there soon after. What immediately struck me was their quiet, humble, reserved but confident demeanour. In a heart wrenching conversation with Amichai’s father they expressed a clear ethos of deep and profound comradeship  – they said time and again – אחים אנחנו  we are brothers. Despite their obvious heroism, there was something almost self-effacing about them - they shunned any praise or admiration. Like so many of our young heroes, it was clear that in their minds they were no more important than the next solider, or even the next citizen. Amichai, by all accounts, possessed these exact traits, his ability to connect deeply with his fellow comrades, as diverse as they were, emanated from an unusual combination of humble compassion and ardent conviction. At his funeral his commander, a non-religious left leaning Tel Avivite, recounted their plans to set up a political party that would respect, accept and understand each other. This type of leadership can only be achieved in an environment that fosters a very certain kind of individual as we shall see.


Idan Amedi a well-known singer and actor whose songs I have loved for years and whose concerts I have gone to, was badly injured this week in Gaza. He has a beautiful song called ‘nigmar’ (finished)-  which I heard many years ago on the radio which I  fell in love with and promptly became a fan of his music. In the song he describes the feelings of a soldier coming home from war. He writes:

ובדרך כשיצאנו אל הבית,אז עצרנו בפלאפל בפינה

ואנשים שם הסתכלו מחאו כפיים,"הגיבורים שלנו" אמרו באהבה..

ואני עומד שם מסתתר,קצת גדול עלי להיות זה ששומרים

בין ביס לביס עולה בי מחשבה,לעזאזל כמה גיבורים יש במדינה..


 And on our way back home (from the battlefield)

We stopped at a falafel stand

And people there looked and clapped their hands

"Our heroes" they said with love, And I stand there, hiding,

A bit too much for me to be the one who guards/protects...

And from bite to bite a thought rises...

Damn, how many heroes are there in this country

The ambivalence of the soldier’s perceived courage and heroism is described in the song and contrasts so radically with the arrogance and ego we see on the battlefield of the political arena. To understand the biblical paradigm of leadership one need look no further than this week’s parsha.


Moshe is a surprising choice of leader, plucked from a life of elected obscurity, divinely charged to return to a life of leadership and prominence, he acts as the antithesis of what society aims for today.


I want to bring two social theories about society to bear on elements of the parsha text this week. Erich Fromm, a German psychoanalyst, makes a distinction between ‘having’ and ‘being’. In the mode of ‘having’ acquisition (of material things, love, knowledge etc) is the quintessential value. Hedonism, universal envy, greed and unhappiness are the natural outgrowth of such a mindset. The mode of ‘being’ exists when I am not influenced by any external forces, I am true to myself; I seek things, be it knowledge, happiness and meaning as a channel to self-growth, transformation, and authenticity. Altruism, community, and joy are the natural corollaries of such an outlook.


David Brooks in his is book The Road to Character, explicates two ways of living our lives that parallel Fromm’s categories, what he terms ‘resume’ virtues and ‘eulogy’ virtues. ‘Résumé’ virtues, are characteristics that make us ‘saleable’ – they are about the things we ‘acquire’ – our successes, our accolades and our material possessions – they see only the self – the ‘I’. ‘Eulogy virtues’,  are the characteristics that will be spoken about at our funeral. They represent the sometimes painful, relentless journey to honing our ethical character. Eulogy virtues are built through self-sacrifice, humility and seeing beyond the self.


Moshe, a man of ‘being’ makes his journey from the peak of civilisation to a nomadic existence; from a mode of ‘having’ to a mode of ‘being’. Moshe is a man plagued by self-doubt: ‘who am I go to speak to Pharaoh, I am not a man of words, I am of uncircumcised lips’. These are not the characteristics one would naturally expect of a leader. Brooks would remind us that they do not bode well for his ‘résumé’ virtues’. They are indicative of a person who is humbly cognisant of their limits, who is conscious of the journey towards character formation and whose empathy for the other underpins their worldview– eulogy virtues.

In this week’s parsha Moshe turns to God and bemoans his inability to impact Pharaoh or the people of Israel stating:

“The Children of Israel have not listened to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me? I am a man of uncircumcised lip’s’. (Exodus 6:12)

Moshe ‘uncircumcised lips’ are reminiscent of the act of circumcision, an act of removing an excess layer. In the mode of ‘having’ we convince ourselves that the excess layers in our lives, both in a literal materialistic sense and through the layers we form to inconspicuously hide from our inner selves are a necessary measure of self. Egypt was the hub of excessiveness. How could Moshe who had become a creature of moderation, living primarily in a mode of ‘being’, relate to the leader of Egypt that embodied the ‘having’ mode. His inability to speak was a cry for help from God. He needed a quick fix, a change of personality, an ability to become something he was not, so he could persuade those that needed persuading. He needed to win resume character traits rather than eulogy ones. God’s response is revealing. He tells him he must return to Pharaoh and once more request the peoples release. He teaches him the ethos of perseverance and the meaning of process. But the deeper answer lies in the very next verse. In a strange juxtaposition, we have a list of the lineage of Moshe’s household:

“These are the heads of their fathers house” -אלא ראשי בית אבותם  (Exodus 6:13-14)

What is it doing here, why is it placed in the middle of the exodus narrative?

The Torah gives voice to Moshe’s doubts and then immediately lists his lineage to emphasise the true character of biblical leadership. It is as if God is saying to Moshe “You are part of something far larger than just yourself, nothing can be achieved overnight, success cannot be defined through immediate results. Moshe - if you measure your success as a leader on the immediate responses, your leadership will fall fast.” Revolutions often fail to create sustainable change, authentic transformation cannot be made in a day. Leadership requires patience, time and effort. Fame, influence and leadership that arise overnight are not sustainable and lack authenticity. When we talk of the Avot in tefillah we name three of them together Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The success of each is dependent on the other. Avraham’s revolution could not have been sustained without the passiveness of Yitzchak and so forth. To know that we are dispensable humbles us, to know we are capable of success guided by the message of God and created in His image emboldens us.

Moshe’s despondency is met by the Divine with a reminder of his lineage, the fact that he comes from greatness means to greatness he can climb. Every successful leader knows that he stands on the shoulders of giants, every bad leader believes he is the giant and others stand on his shoulders. The narrative ends with these words:


“These were the leaders of the fathers of the Levites. 26 This was the Aaron and Moses, to whom the LORD said: 'Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their hosts.' 27 They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.” (Exodus 6: 25-27)


 These words are a poignant reminder of who we are. Moshe and Aaron ARE their ancestors. None of us are born in a vacuum. We are all part of a chain of generations, a legacy that precedes us, but each of us can form a legacy that ensues after us. If we focus on ‘being’ more than we focus on ‘having’, if we cultivate our ‘eulogy’ virtues and not only our ‘resume’ virtues, if we choose to see our potential greatness with a large dose of humility and self-sacrifice, we can all become influential people. Like Amichai Oster ז"ל and all those heroes who have perished in the last 3 months who knew they were fighting for something larger than themselves, like Moshe and Aaron who together with God are able to talk to Pharoah's and convince slaves precisely because they understood that we all descend from greatness and on the shoulders of Giants we stand.

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