G‑d was shopping around for someone to lead his people out of Egypt. For whatever reason, the local talent didn’t measure up: not Aaron, a prophet, nor any of the Hebrew elders.
Instead, He headhunted an Egyptian-bred prince on the run in Midian.
That would be Moses.
You’ve got to wonder why. What was it about Moses that made him worthy to lead?
The Midrash answers by way of a story.
“Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep one day, when one of them bolted. Moses followed the runaway animal until it reached a body of water, where it stopped for a drink. Moses compassionately said to the sheep, ‘If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running . . .’ Saying this, he scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders and headed back to his flock.
Said G‑d: ‘If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd Mine . . .’”
Taken at face value, this story, and G‑d’s choice of Moses, is about Moses’ deep commitment to the individual, not just to the community. Moses never lost sight of each tree in the forest.
Moreover, this anecdote tells of his extraordinary devotion to each member of his flock, regardless of behavior. It is this charming tale which introduces us to Moses’ unconditional love for his charges, the legendary virtue that would come to characterize and immortalize him.
We might even add that it was this very act of Moses, his setting out to pursue a renegade sheep, that gave birth to the idea of outreach, and mirrors G‑d’s messianic promise that “even if your outcasts are at the end of the heavens, the L‑rd, your G‑d, will gather and take you from there.”
If the lesson stopped here, dayeinu—it would be enough.
But the story and its lesson run deeper.
After replaying in my mind Moses’ words to the sheep, I was struck by the depth of character they reveal in Moses.
“If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running . . .”
Upon reaching the animal at the riverbank, Moses didn’t see a rebellious creature. He saw a frightened being, one in need of immediate attention. He discerned what too many would not: that thoughts of hydration, not rebellion, drove this tender animal to break from “tradition” and to leave its natural surroundings behind. It simply hadn’t been receiving from its caretaker that which it needed in order to thrive, even survive.
These gentle words, that hint of apology, display the breadth and depth of Moses’ humility. They provide the backdrop and soundtrack for the epic story of Moses’ leadership. Moses was a master detective of the human spirit, always following the clues leading to man’s underlying goodness, recognizing thirst where others might see mutiny, seeing restlessness—even insubordination2—as an expression of the desire to grow.
Moses wasn’t naive or romantic; he was more perceptive and receptive.
He knew how to look, where to look; but most importantly, to look at all.
Hippies and Teens
It behooves us to mention a modern-day Moses.
By this I mean the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who resembled Moses, the first rebbe, in more ways than one.
First, in terms of his commitment to the fringe and forsaken Jew. The Rebbe took to heart the awesome words of the holy Baal Shem Tov, said in response to those who questioned his behavior of traveling to visit Jews in remote areas, instead of waiting for them to seek him out:
“Every single Jew is a letter in the Torah scroll. And just as a Torah scroll is invalid if one letter is obliterated or missing, so the Jewish people, a living Torah scroll, is invalid if one Jew is missing. I go around restoring Jews to their place in the Torah.”3
So literally did the Rebbe take this idea that he created a movement out of it, forming and leading an army of “Torah-letter restorationists.”
And, as far as identifying thirst in revolt:
In the ’60s, when the Jewish establishment was shocked by the youth rebellion and cried: “Student unrest! Hippies! This is a lost generation!” the Rebbe declared, “The apathetic ice of America is finally beginning to thaw. Young people now realize they need not conform to society’s norms!”
This was how, true to the tradition of Moses, he defined the essence of that zeitgeist.
In fact, the Rebbe viewed youth of all times similarly, saying, “The rebellion of young people is not a crime. On the contrary: It is the fire of the soul that refuses to conform, that is dissatisfied with the status quo, that cries out that it wants to change the world and is frustrated with not knowing how.”
Only a Moses would say that.
What’s in It for Me?
It’s so easy to write off wayward or defiant students, children, members of our faith and of society at large.
It’s only natural to label and denounce them.
It’s unnatural—no, supernatural—to see anything redeeming in their bark or bite, to see their hurt as the cause of their hurting, to look at ourselves in the mirror of responsibility,4 as opposed to looking at others through a window of culpability.
But then again, whoever said there was anything natural about being a Moses?
Based on Sichot Kodesh 5740, p. 222.