Parashat B'shalah

God And The Angel: Leaders And Protectors

The images of the angel of God and the pillar of cloud accompanying the Israelites in the desert raise questions about effective leadership.

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"And it cast a spell upon the night:” And he gave light to the night. This refers to the angel in the pillar of fire, for he removed the dark of night and there was no cloud separating them [the Israelites] and the illuminating fire, as there was on the Egyptian side. (Sforno)

The light of God is the soul of man. (Talmud)

I lift my eyes to the mountains;
What is the source of my help?
My help comes from Adonai,
Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot give way;
Your Protector will not slumber.
See, the Protector of Israel neither
Slumbers nor sleeps!
God is your Guardian,
God is your protection
At your right hand.
(Psalms 121)

For having more faith in us than we had in ourselves, for being brave when required and rude when appropriate and tender without being trite, for not sleeping and not quitting and not shrinking from the pain all around him, Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of the World, is Time's 2001 Person of the Year. (Time, December 13, 2001, p. 36)

Your Guide

Can you think of a time when we, the Jewish people, had aggressors coming at us from the front and the back? Did we, collectively, feel God carry us?

Do you think that the Israelites could not move without a leader in front? Why or why not? If Nachshon hadn't raced to the front and jumped fearlessly into the water, would the Israelites still be standing at the shores of the Sea of Reeds?

Do we demand too much from our leaders, expecting them, like God, to be present for us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? What does this say about our community and culture? Name a few individuals who you think demonstrate the twenty-four-hour-a-day work ethic, for example, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani.

D'var Torah

These two verses of Torah (Exodus 14:19-20) teach that leading and protecting a population are not easy tasks. There is not one right way to act, make decisions, relate to the community, and envision the future. At times, God and the angel need to be in the front. At other times, they need to be in the back.

We know that throughout the Israelites' desert wanderings, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a symbol of God's leadership, was borne in the midst of the people. We surmise, therefore, that leadership does not depend on the position from which one governs. True leadership is defined by the possession of a strong character, a clear vision, flexibility, and an ability to react to a crisis at a moment's notice.

In our day, it is also important for a leader to show the characteristic of humanity. However, we should remember that human leaders are not God: They are not omnipotent, infallible, and omniscient, as God is, nor can we expect them to be.

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Rabbi Deborah Pipe-Mazo is the director of rabbinic services for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.