An imperfect leader – and that’s OK

An imperfect leader – and that’s OK

Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35

Moses was not perfect.  This is such a simple statement to make, so easy to understand.  “Of course, Moses wasn’t perfect, he was a human being,” you tell me.  How could he be perfect?

The problem is, however, that we hold our religious heroes to very high standards, either perfection, or just short of it.  

Our Christian friends believe that Jesus was part of God, and therefore, perfect.

Our Muslim friends believe that their Prophet was human, but such a completely superior human being that he is near perfect.  How perfect? You’re not even supposed to make a representation of him, lest defect or wart be shown.

Buddha’s followers believed that throughout his life, he attained greater and greater spiritual wisdom, so that when he died, he attained nirvana.

We have no such problem with Moses.  The text of the holy Torah in this week’s parsha tells of Moses’ imperfections without any hesitation:

“When Moses told this [God’s promise of redemption] to the Israelites they would not listen to Moses, because of shortness of breath (spirit) and harsh labor.” (Ex. 6.9)

You could say that Moses was not at fault at all; the people refused to listen to him.  But Moses attributes his failure to his own imperfection — his speech defect — and declares himself unfit to speak to Pharaoh on God’s behalf:

“The Israelites would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech (a-ral s’fa-ta-yim, literally ‘uncircumcised lips’).”  (Ex. 9.12)

Aviva Zornberg, the wonderful modern Torah commentator, teaches that this aspect of Moses, his imperfection, is what gives him the empathy required to lead our entire people.  Moses knows the challenges of the human condition:  fear, loneliness, aches, pains, speech defects.  Moses is so not perfect — he is quintessentially human instead.

It is for this reason that we refer to him with such tenderness as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher or rabbi.  He is not removed from us.  He has had intimate conversations with God, yet he is not so far beyond us that we have the vaguest thought elevating him to divine status.

Throughout the Torah, our commentators are unafraid to take Moses to task for his failings.  They criticize his attempt to refuse God’s commission to speak to Pharaoh and lead our people.  They challenge his shattering the Ten Commandments with God’s word incised upon them.  They wholly disapprove Moses’ hitting the rock to bring water out of it instead of coaxing it out with words as God commanded him.

The Torah ends by declaring that “… never again did there arise a prophet like Moses whom God singled out, face to face.”  (Deuteronomy 34.10)  

Yet despite this elevated status, we relate to our imperfect leader as one who understands us, who could lead us despite our spiritual “shortness of breath,” even with all of our people’s complaints from Exodus through Numbers.

I believe that he could do so, not because he was a superior, nearly perfect human being.  No, precisely the opposite — Moses was imperfect and so he knew our imperfections.  He was not above or beyond his people, he was so very much one of us.  Moses … a wonderful, gloriously imperfect, spiritually gifted man, prophet, leader and sage.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)