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Pesach.  April 26, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

On this seventh day of Pesach, we recall the greatest miracle in all of history, the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the safe crossing of the Israelites. It is a story that is well known because it is the climax of the entire story of the Exodus. Getting us out of Egypt was only the first part of the story. The Israelites left, but the Egyptian army was still intact, and it is that army, so feared by the People of Israel, that comes after them as they camp by the sea.

The text of the Torah reflects the feelings of the people as they find themselves trapped. Their first reaction is sheer panic. Trapped by the sea, they stand no chance against Pharaoh’s army. God tells the people to move forward but they don’t know which way they should go. Moses is told to hold his staff over the sea, but nothing seems to happen. There is much confusion and no real idea of what they should do next.

According to the Midrash, Nachshon ben Aminadab, the brother-in-law of Aaron and chief of the tribe of Judah, figures out exactly what they need to do. As a sign of his great faith in God, he jumps into the water of the sea and begins to wade across. At first the water rises up to his waist, his neck and just as it reaches his nose, the miracle happens and the sea parts. It is the faith of Nachshon that saves the day.

When Moses is unsure, Nachshon’s certainty, his bold action, his daring to endanger his own life to save others is what it takes to bring about the miracle. You would think that Nachshon would be the natural leader of the Israelites. He is, after all, the chief of the largest and most notable tribe, the tribe of Judah. Why is it that Moses is the acknowledged leader of the people and not someone as daring as Nachshon?

If you really want to seek out a person in the story of the Exodus who leads with certainty, then you really can’t beat Pharaoh. The King of Egypt is everything that Moses is not. Moses asks God, “Who am I to lead the People of Israel?”; while Pharaoh asks, “Who is the Lord that I should listen to Him?” Moses may have a speech impediment and speaks with a “heavy tongue”, but Pharaoh speaks with confidence, sure of who he is, and his words convey strength.

If we look at the world today, we see that people like a leader who is strong. Everyone is looking for someone who is confident and sure of where she or he is going. Our politicians speak in superlatives. Everything is black and white. They define white as what they do, and they define black as everything the opposition does. When it comes to solving problems, we look for the one who assures us that “I can fix this”; they are not only good, they are Great!!

Andre Spokoiny, the President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, recently wrote, “While we mortals tend to love “strong leaders”, God chooses Moshe – the fragmented, the insecure, the fighter of internal battles, the one consumed by doubt – not the one who speaks “with a smooth mouth”. God seems to like the leader who’s capable of living in uncertainty, in mystery, in doubt, the one who embraces the gaps in his soul and, like Moshe, acknowledges the gaps in his speech. God loves the one who knows his incompleteness and accepts the patchiness of his personality. Pharaoh’s self-assuredness generates only contempt in God; his speech is as his heart; hardened like rock. Pharaoh is a prisoner of his own certitude, a pathetic believer in his own infallibility. Nothing, not even the plagues, can dent the armor of his haughtiness. Egypt can die around him, but his speech won’t falter, his self-confidence won’t crack.”

When I listen to the news, I hear our leaders talking without any nuance or self-doubt. It doesn’t matter if the leadership is on the right of the left, Republican or Democrat, everyone speaks as if they have all the answers and their path can be the only correct path for our country. After all, their opinions have to fit into a short Facebook post or in the 280 characters that make up a tweet on Twitter. How many fine distinctions can fit into a sound byte on cable news? Which of the Presidential candidates would dare to post an image of self-doubt? And if they did, would we understand their position, or would we write them off as someone who flip flops or is too weak to lead?

The fact is, our world is no less complex as the world in which Moshe lived. There is still much around us that we don’t understand. There are competing interests that have to be balanced. We live in a complex economy where if we impose oil sanctions on Iran, we are the ones paying more for our gasoline at the pump. Great Britain can’t figure out how to extract themselves from the European economy; how can this country hope to untangle our markets from other world markets?

I have to tell you; I am tired of people who don’t know any more than I know telling me that they understand things better than me.  For three weeks we waited for the Mueller report to be finished and every day there was someone on television on every station telling me what the report would say. They would start by admitting that nobody knows what is in the Report but then they would go on and tell us anyway that they were the ones who could discern what the final report would be.

Now we have pundits telling us what the 20 Democratic candidates have to do in order to win. You would think that this is an easy process; they have only to collect enough votes on election day. But one candidate has to be more personable while the other one is too personable. One has to be confident, the other is too confident. Female candidates are held to a different standard than male candidates. Our incumbent president considers his own enemies to be “enemies of the people”. He has so much self confidence that nobody can tell him what to do. Between the campaigning on both sides, and the distractions of the pundits, nothing is getting done.

And there are serious concerns requiring attention and action. Our immigration process has been broken for decades, our health costs spiral out of control, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our voting system has been corrupted by outside influences, but nobody offers any solution for these. The latest distraction, the proposal to add a question to next year’s census questionnaire.  The lack of trust in our leaders has made the public wary of this recommendation. It has everyone questioning motives for its inclusion.

Andre Spokoiny writes, “…if we ever needed to assume our incompleteness, we do now. We live in times of unprecedented change. The social and economic order, and even the human condition itself, are being transformed beyond recognition. The 21st century didn’t come with an user’s manual and we are all faltering, guessing, trying to understand a reality full of uncertainties and question marks.”

If all our leaders are certain of their path, why is our life so uncertain? Where is the humble leader, the one who knows what he does not know and gathers around her or himself the people who can help make good decisions. When Moshe was unsure, he had Nachshon to step into the gap. When words failed Moshe, he had Aaron speak up on his behalf.

Our age is one of indecision. Despite all the so called leaders who tell us exactly where we need to go, we struggle with making important decisions. Can we identify the most important needs of this country? Can we imagine where we want our nation to go? Do we have a vision of the future? If we do, then our decisions should come easily; we should just choose to do what we think will get us to our goals.  But there are too many people shouting their own vision; we have become unsure of what we want. So, we elect people who we think will take us in a good direction only to discover that their direction is not exactly where we want to go.

So, I am looking for Moshe in a leader. I want to face my uncertainty and do the hard work needed to discover where I want my life to go. I need to sit down with my family and together we need to work out what is important for us in this world. We can then share our concerns with our community and figure out a way forward for our city and then our state. There will be no one answer to where our country should go. Only possibilities that we need to try out and gauge their efficiency. We need to discuss the future, weigh our uncertainly and decide how best to get to where we want to go.

The certainty of Pharaoh led his country to ruin. The insecure prophet who stuttered still gives us hope for humanity’s future. May God grant us leaders who are humble and unsure so we can all work together to move our country and all humanity forward. … as we say … Amen and Hag Sameach


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on April 26, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780