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Leaders Can’t Lead Without the Support of Their Communities
Parshat Beshalach

Leaders Can’t Lead Without the Support of Their Communities

A weary Moses needs help in overcoming great obstacles and achieving great miracles.

At the onset of my career, when I was delivering my first d’var Torah in front of my congregation in a lovely outside setting, an elderly congregant called out, “I can’t hear her. I can’t understand a word she is saying!”

Fortunately, from the moment of that inauspicious start, the congregation was continually wonderful to me and helped me develop both professionally and personally. I went on to develop a very close rapport with the members of that congregation and look back fondly at that time.

The support I received from that Jewish community finds its echo in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. Famous for its inclusion of Shirat haYam, the Song at the Sea, the portion ends with a message about supporting our leaders that must not be overlooked. When Moses is tired and weary and can no longer lift his hands to lead, the community’s proxies, Aaron and Hur, rally around him and support him, literally holding his hands up so that they “remain steady” (Exodus 17:12). As a result, Joshua and his army prevail against the Israelites’ enemy Amalek.

The image of Moses with his hands held aloft by members of the community is a powerful metaphor. It demonstrates that if we are to overcome adversity, our leaders need the community’s tireless support, and that the community needs to be “hands on.” While the portion includes numerous miraculous events fit for a Hollywood production — Pharaoh’s mighty pursuit of the Israelites, the sea splitting and creating two walls through which the Israelites could march, the Egyptian pursuers being hurled in the sea, and manna coming down from heaven — it concludes on this poignant human moment of support and respect.

Rabbi Wendy Pein (Courtesy)

Our portion teaches us that the relationship between leaders and their people will grow over time when trust is developed. At the beginning of the portion, when the Israelites left Egypt, God led them on a roundabout journey, for if they encountered hardship immediately, God said, “the Am (people) may have a change of heart” (Ex. 13:17).

At this point in history, the Israelites are a divided and complaining group of ingrates. Despite being guided through the wilderness by God in a pillar of cloud, the Israelites cannot recognize God’s presence in their lives. When the Israelites see Pharaoh and the Egyptians pursuing them, they turn against Moses, saying that Moses should have left them to serve Pharaoh and die in Egypt (Ex. 14:11-1 2).

Alternatively, our portion also portrays the miraculous accomplishments that can be achieved when leaders and their community work together. At the climax of the story, when it is most crucial to their survival, the Israelites put their faith in God and Moses and march together through the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14:21 -22). After they passed through the sea, the Israelites sing Shirat Ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea (Ex. 15: 1 – 19), in joy and in unison. In our daily liturgy, we recite the Mi Chamocha prayer, an excerpt from the Song at the Sea, perhaps to continually remind us that when we are a united community, we can overcome great obstacles and achieve great miracles.

Our portion also portrays the miraculous accomplishments that can be achieved when leaders and their community work together.

Today the leaders of the Jewish community have many challenges. Our congregations and Hebrew schools are mostly empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A rising wave of antisemitism threatens the United States and global Jewish community. Iran is an increasing menace and an existential threat to Israel. Our politics are undermining the possibility of solidarity. Trying to keep our community engaged and institutions financially afloat has left our Jewish leaders tired and weary.

But we must learn from our portion that it is our role to lift up our leaders and support them. To provide them the resources they need to do their job. To participate and volunteer. To fund and encourage them. Once again it seems that we are at a crucial juncture, a metaphorical crossing of the Sea of Reeds. My hope is that we each choose the path of supporting our leaders so that we may march together without fear to a better Jewish and world future.

Rabbi Wendy Pein is the director of congregational learning at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester in Croton-on-Hudson, co-president of the Westchester Association of Temple Educators, and a visiting lecturer at The Osborn senior living residence in Rye.

Candlelighting, Readings

Friday, Jan.14, 2022
Shevat 12, 5782

Light candles at 4:34 p.m. (NYC)


Torah Reading: Beshalach: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31

Shabbat ends 5:37 p.m. (NYC)

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