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Moses – a Model of Leadership


Dr. Ruth Wolf


Combined Major in the Social Sciences

Jewish sources teach us about the ideal leader.  Scripture mentions several leaders who were chosen by others to lead their people, including Moses and Saul, and from their characteristics we can undoubtedly deduce what traits are needed to be a worthy leader.   Below I shall discuss Moses’ leadership of the Israelites, which is revealed in all its aspects as the book of Deuteronomy draws to a close.  Moses provides a unique model of leadership, with the characteristics that make a worthy leader.

Moses was taken from his life as a shepherd and chosen to lead his people, despite his being slow of speech and slow of tongue.   As it is written in Exodus Rabbah (Freedman ed., p. 48):

The Lord trieth the righteous.   By what does He try him?  By tending flocks.   He tried David through sheep and found him to be a good shepherd, as it is said:  He chose David also His servant and took him from the sheepfolds… Because he used to stop the bigger sheep from going out before the smaller ones, and bring smaller ones out first, so that they should graze upon the tender grass, and afterwards he allowed the old sheep to feed from the ordinary grass, and lastly he brought forth the young, lusty sheep to eat the tougher grass. Whereupon G-d said:   “He who knows how to look after sheep, bestowing upon each the care it deserves, shall come and tend my people.”

Likewise, Moses was tested by none other than the flocks:

Our Rabbis said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him.   He ran after it until it reached a shady place.  When it reached the shade place, there appeared to view a pool of water and the kid stopped to drink.   When Moses approached it, he said:   “I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary.”  So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away.  Thereupon G-d said:  “Because thou hast mercy in leading the flock of a mortal, thou wilt assuredly tend my flock Israel.”   Hence  Now Moses was keeping the flock.

In other words, Moses’ capacity for mercy, evidenced in his treatment of the flocks, was a determining factor in his being chosen to lead the people.   Indeed, scholars have analyzed mercy as an emotional factor in the theory of ethics, distinguishing between the ethics of mercy and ethics of justice.  A prevalent approach in the theory of ethics stresses the importance of developing emotional/social understanding, which leads to empathy and compassion.   Philosophers, psychologists and theoreticians view compassion as an important foundation of morality, stressing the aspect of ethics that is based on solidarity, altruism, understanding others, and showing care and concern for the generality.

What is compassion?

Compassion (Heb. hemlah) is defined as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. [1]   The Hebrew dictionary, Even Shoshan, in defining hemlah, illustrates the meaning with a verse from the Bible:  “In his love and pity (hemlah) He Himself redeemed them” (Isa. 63:9).  Thus this word stresses the emotional qualities of mercy, sympathy and desire to act, to help.

Ruiz and Valejios [2] cite a definition of compassion from a Spanish dictionary:  “Feelings of pity for the suffering of others; a desire to amend, alleviate or prevent such suffering.”  This implies that underlying the notion of compassion is the fact that a person can not only understand suffering but also is commanded to take action that will lead to its prevention or alleviation.

According to these definitions, compassion subsumes cognition, emotion, and action.   To be compassionate means not only to have the necessary understanding of others’ suffering, not only to feel the emotion evoked by seeing others’ suffering, but also to take concrete action.   Hence compassion finds expression in these three spheres of life.

The ethics that draw on compassion are based on developing empathy; it is an attempt at getting into the other’s shoes, the individual’s ability to be aware of others and try to understand their condition, feelings and emotions. [3]   This capacity is the fruit of cognitive maturity; as researchers have stressed, awareness of others is a stage in maturing.

Compassion puts emphasis on emotions – the universal emotions shared by all human beings – understanding the feeling of suffering experienced by those who are in a worse condition.  Sharing and understanding others in their suffering is likely to increase empathy based on a sense of the equality of all human beings insofar as they are human.

Compassion is an emotion that can be developed.  In certain formal settings, such as the workplace, it can be of assistance in relations between employer and employee, customer and salesperson, or among staff members.  Compassion can make a worker more attentive to a critical point of view, more tolerant of suffering, of protest and criticism, and more empathetic and willing to listen and help others.

Compassion in Moses’ Behavior

Compassion, which finds expression in actually helping others, is shown in Moses’ behavior towards the daughters of the priest of Midian:  “but shepherds came and drove them off.  Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock” (Ex. 2:16).  This shows Moses extending a helping hand to the weak and needy, and indeed Jethro’s daughters said of him:  “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock” (Ex. 2:19).   The ability to fight against wrongdoers, to rescue and help the weak, is a trait ingrained in Moses’ character from an early age.

Another trait is ascribed to Moses by biblical exegetes.   On the verse, “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness” (Ex. 3:1), Rashi comments that Moses took the flock into the wilderness out of concern not to graze the flock on someone else’s land.   Apparently a sense of justice and morality was also ingrained in him.  The Torah tells us of his struggle to defend his compatriots who were being beaten.   Moses saved the Hebrew from the Egyptian taskmaster (Ex. 2:11-12), and the next day came out against a Hebrew who was beating his fellow:  “so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’” (Ex. 2:13).   As I mention in my book, [4] moral people are prepared to fight wickedness and injustice even if they must pay a price for so doing.  As proof take the situation in which Moses himself became embroiled, becoming a wanted man who had to flee to the wilderness.

Kolberg [5] makes the point that people of high moral standing hold their own when it comes to matters of justice, welfare, and the rights of others, while being aware of the price they might have to pay for their actions.  Being a fighter for justice does not always make for peaceful relations with everyone; but those who choose to follow a moral path generally are committed to their ideals.  The courage to act according to moral criteria characterized Moses his entire life.

Defining a Leader

The definition of a leader in the professional literature is a person whose followers adhere to him willingly, out of an understanding of his might and charisma and of the fact that he reached a position of leadership not through exertion of force or manipulation.  Scholars stress that this view of the leader in the eyes of those who are led is an important principle in the character of a leader.   His might and his actions brings those who follow him to walk in his ways.  Nevertheless, we see in Scripture that Moses, as a leader, did not come out against the minority who bad-mouthed him, opposed him, and picked fault with him.

In the Korah affair we read of Moses’ response when he heard Korah and his company taunting him:  “When Moses heard this, he fell on his face” (Num. 16:4).  Moses did not go to battle against those who wished to undermine his authority nor did he enter a confrontation with them; rather, he tried to reason with them.   He continued as always, standing fast by his principles and aims, helping and lending a hand to the generality of the people.  Note that in his words of reproach he did not list himself among those offended:   “Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together.  For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?” (Num. 16:11).   Nevertheless, Moses was angry at their picking fault with him:  “I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (Num. 16:15).

Also in the matter of the criticism launched at him by his sister Miriam on account of his having married a Cushite, Scripture does not mention any response by Moses to her insults.  Quite the contrary, when she became afflicted with leprosy Moses hastened to entreat the Holy One, blessed be He, to have pity on her, praying, “O G-d, pray heal her” (Num. 12:13).  He asked for mercy for his sister irrespective of what she had done, and the concise formulation of his prayer underscores the nature of his request – begging and crying out urgently for her to be healed.

The nobility of Moses’ character, his capacity for restraining himself from reacting to insults, and his desire to unite the people and see to their welfare – all these comprise the unique nature of his leadership.   As a leader he did not settle accounts with those who came out against him. Naturally he understood that there would be people who would not comprehend what he was doing and would even seek power for themselves.  He was not power hunger or seeking glory as a leader.  As proof, witness his initial request that the Holy One, blessed be He, that he not be chosen for the task:  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites fro Egypt?”   (Ex. 3:11).  Moses added further, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 4:10).

In conclusion, Moses did not choose to be a leader, rather he had this position imposed upon him.  He was found worthy of the job and was chosen for it precisely because of his noble traits, among them a rejection of wielding power and leadership.  Mercy and respect for others were deeply ingrained in him from a young age.  A leader must also know that he cannot satisfy everyone, yet must believe in his way and faithfully adhere to it.



[1] Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, Mass. (G. & C. Merriam Company) 1963, p. 169.

[2] Ruiz, P. O. & Valejios, R. M., “The role of compassion in moral education,” Journal of Moral Education, 28 (1999), pp. 5-17.

[3] Ruth Wolf, Ethicah Tovah le-Asakim, Jerusalem 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kohlberg, L., “Stage and sequence:  The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization,” in D. A. Goslin (ed.), Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, Chicago 1969.