Jewish Insights into Leadership

April 2021   Keeping Connected

Dear Friends,

The book of Exodus shares many insights about the Jewish understanding of leadership. Exodus opens with a story we are all familiar with. A new Egyptian leader arises; one who is threatened by the Israelites seeing them as the “other” and a risk to Egyptian society. As a leader the king is guided by fear and animosity and as a result decides not only to persecute the Hebrews but to actually engage in a genocide. Pharaoh’s first command of violence towards the Israelites, however, is met by another model of leadership.

Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys that they deliver. My rabbinic thesis was about these two women and I have always been in awe of their bravery and integrity. The Torah says, “The midwives, fearing Go, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them: they let the baby boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are chayot , like animals and are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them they have given birth’.” The text of the Torah tells us that Shifrah and Puah were rewarded by God for their heroism and resistance to violence; even though they were standing up to the leader who had the power to take their lives.

The leadership model that these two women demonstrate is exemplary. We do not know if they were themselves Hebrews or Egyptian women. Either way, we learn a lot about courage. If they were Hebrews, we knew how little Pharaoh valued their lives and that they were taking significant risks to themselves and families. If they were Egyptian women, then it is amazing how they could reach across the differences of their cultures and feel a moral obligation to protect the lives of those who had differing beliefs and national heritage.

Shifrah and Puah were also very intelligent. When they were called out by Pharoah for disobeying his command, their explanation was that the Israelite women were like “animals” and that they gave birth themselves before they could arrive for the delivery. Their use of the term “animals” fit right into Pharoah’s marginalization of the Hebrews themselves. One can understand why the midwives would use this defense as a way to protect themselves. They were already taking great risks and they needed to find a way to deflect blame. They did not know that Pharoah would decide to take matters into his own hand and command his army to violently seize the baby boys and throw them into the Nile.

Finally, the midwives were guided by an inner moral compass without hope for reward. In fact, they more than likely feared that their actions could have been perceived as treasonous and that they would be punished, perhaps losing their lives. It is important to note that God took note of Shifrah and Puah’s heroic actions and rewarded them.

Recently, Rabbi Amy Eilberg taught me a new insight about this narrative; a text that in rabbinic school I had spent months reflecting on and writing about. She writes that “in a number of ways, Shifrah and Puah serve as exemplars of what the Mussar masters call ometz lev, a fascinating phrase, literally meaning ‘heart strength’.” She continues, “The phrase raises a key question for us to ponder: is ‘heart strength’ always positive, or can it turn into rigidity, stubbornness, or arrogance? How are we to understand the fact that the word ometz is also used to describe those who clench their hearts and refuse to give to the poor (Deut. 15:7).”

I am so struck by this term, ometz lev, “heart strength” and what is means about leadership. Rabbi Eilberg asks very profound questions which can help us to reflect on our own leadership traits and motivations. She writes, “In our own lives, when we sense power and urgency arising in our hearts, how are we to know whether we are acting ‘for God’s will,’ like the biblical Shifrah and Puah, or whether we are motivated by desire for fame, admiration, or personal gratification? Is the surge of strength welling up in us truly righteous anger for the sake of heaven or for the sake of the world’s needs, or is it coming from the powerful force of our own ego desires? How do we discern when to trust the rush of activist energy and when to pause and interrogate it?”

These are powerful questions and I hope that they will guide me going forward when I wonder what kind of leader I want to be. These questions can also be a guide as we teach others about the values of Judaism. I hope that you too will be motivated to reflect on what having “ometz lev”, heart strength, means for you; how can you cultivate this trait in a time when we are faced with so many moral challenges. Fortunately, Judaism offers many texts that can help guide us in this journey.

Warm regards,

Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry