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Moses, Pharaoh and the Candidates

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Two very different leadership contests have competed for the attention of religiously observant American Jews in recent weeks. One of them played out among Republican candidates seeking the right to challenge Barack Obama for leadership of the most powerful nation on earth. The other played out in the Torah portions describing the fateful battle in the name of the Lord that Moses conducted against Pharaoh, in his day the most powerful ruler on earth. I couldn't help looking at each contest in the light of the other, despite real reluctance to sully the Exodus narrative -- one of the most profound and sacred stories in the biblical canon -- by comparing it to a political campaign that has lately been the opposite of noble. The juxtaposition proved too illuminating to ignore.

Note first what the Bible has to say to the questions on many American minds as the mudslinging and counterpunching take their toll week by week on candidates and electorate alike: Why would anyone in their right mind want to go through this? Why would any sane person seek the presidency? Moses, notably, did not seek his prophetic office; indeed, he begged God to send someone else to stand before the Israelites and Pharaoh. Unlike candidates who proclaim that they alone are worthy of our vote, Moses repeatedly and quite sincerely professed his lack of suitability for the task of leading the Israelites. He is the first in a line of prophets who established a rule that holds good for many biblical leaders: if you want the job, you're not right for it. God does not choose individuals who approach with confidence the difficulties that await them (not least the difficulty of standing before God and doing God's bidding). One wishes that candidates for modern elected office had similar humility -- and that the public were wise enough to reward that virtue rather than scorning it.

Pharaoh, for his part, is not equipped to do anything but say no. He is schooled for power and only for power and, as a result, is ill-equipped to imagine any options beyond a narrow repertoire of intimidation, manipulation and control. It is difficult to blame the king for not knowing the new god in whose name Moses demands liberation of the Israelites. One is not surprised that Pharaoh's first reaction to the plagues God rains on Egypt is to ignore them, his second is to try to use the new god rather than obey him, and his third is to negotiate. Offer your sacrifices here in Egypt, Pharaoh tells Moses at one point: The men can go, perhaps, but not the women or children. By the ninth plague of the 10, however, it seems that Pharaoh has been trapped by the limits of his own political imagination. "Remove this death from me," he begs in a moment of honest weakness, only to stand fast again and refuse to think about reengineering his economy to do without slave labor. "Go -- but leave your flocks," he proposes as Egypt sinks into darkness. Only the 10th plague changes his mind, and that change too proves temporary. He will not let the slave-people go. He would rather die.

The lesson for world leaders battling historical forces of similar magnitude seems clear, even if -- this being the Bible -- that lesson is neither simple nor easily put into practice. Moses succeeds as the leader of the Israelites not only because he has God on his side, but because he reaches deep into every pocket of his experience, tests every ounce of his resilience, and stretches the horizon of his mind past anything he or anyone else has previously encountered. He will soon learn that standing for God and before God often requires him to stand up to God in defense of the people. The Israelites disappoint him, infuriate him, mock his leadership and -- once out of Egypt -- display little faith that the God who got them across the sea will bring them to the Promised Land. Yet Moses refuses to give up on them, and will not let God give up on them either. Moses exhibits a sort of integrity -- personal and national -- that is rarely found in any leader, ancient or contemporary. He is one with himself and one with his people, loving them despite their failures and refusing to accede to those failures, because he knows his people can do better.

The comparison between Moses and present-day leaders or candidates breaks down a bit (though not entirely) in at least two respects. Readers of the Bible of course know that Moses had God behind him (though it is worth remembering that Moses's contemporaries, including members of his own Levitic clan, were sometimes not so sure). What is more, Moses is a wartime, rather than a peacetime, leader. His job is to take charge of a violent uprising that leaves no Egyptian household untouched by death. The rebellion succeeds, launching a prolonged phase of wilderness wandering, only after Pharaoh's army drowns in the sea.

I think Moses realizes early on that his upbringing at court conferred the indispensable ability to take on the Pharaoh, but it was his murder of the Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:12) that qualified him to stand alongside God as the leader of a revolution. His own resort to violence made Moses complicit in the violence that God, with his assistance, will wreak on Egypt. For the same reason, I suspect, God's announcement to Moses that every firstborn male in Egypt will die is followed without pause in the text by the mysterious passage in which God appears to attack Moses's own firstborn son, who is saved only when the boy's mother suddenly circumcises him with a piece of flint (Exodus 4:25). Moses needs to learn the terror of violence, and its impact on victim as well as perpetrator, before he makes violence his instrument and, by doing so, becomes its instrument.

Every American president in our time has borne this burden too. The weighty responsibility for war seems utterly out of keeping with the tenor of campaign rhetoric, unless one believes that dishing out insults and withstanding them in turn is a kind of proxy -- like football -- for battering the enemy and shouldering the burden of American casualties.

I am struck by one final relevant juxtaposition as I write this essay on the eve of the Florida primary. Moses learns near the very beginning of his career as a leader that he cannot lead the Israelites to freedom without sacrificing popularity. This is, of course, the difference between divine election and democracy, and it causes one to wonder how and whether a future (or current) leader can tell people what they need to hear -- the very definition of true leadership -- rather than succumbing to the apparent political necessity of telling them what they want to hear.

Moses's life seems to grow harder rather than easier with every achievement he records, every challenge he meets, every step he takes with his people on the circuitous journey toward the Promised Land. Allies -- even his own brother -- prove unreliable. God, by the end, has become his best friend, perhaps his only friend.

Why take on such a task? Because you know you are called; know that with help you can do it; and know that, when the task seems impossible, God, your spouse, your friends and perhaps history will lend a hand.