Shmot: Responsibility and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

One of the small consolations of a long commute is the chance to listen to audio books that I might not get around to reading; this week, I’ve been listening to The Fifth Discipline, a book about organizational development by the noted theorist Peter Senge. He describes a game in which participants take on the role of retailer, distributor, and manufacturer, and maps out how certain perfectly reasonable decisions will invariably produce bad results for the whole system. More than that, what struck me was his comment that after running this game for more than 20 years with executives and business students, another almost invariable result is that when the system starts breaking down, participants look for somebody to blame- it must have been somebody’s fault, somebody’s incompetence, that led to shortfalls in supply or demand.

The point, of course, is that it’s easier to look for somebody to blame than to examine how our own thinking and behavior may have contributed to the problem in front of us. Nor is this a new phenomenon: at the end of this week’s parsha, after Moshe and Aharon have confronted Pharaoh with the demand that he let the people worship God in the wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload- but the people blame Moshe and Aharon for provoking him rather than admit that no amount of obedience will win the king’s mercy. It’s quite amazing to me that after Pharaoh has been killing their boys for some time now, the people hold Moshe and Aharon responsible for Pharaoh’s contempt, as if things had been just fine till they came along:

“They met Moses and Aaron standing before them when they came out from Pharaoh’s presence. And they said to them, `May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his
servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 5:20-21

I don’t meant to blame the victim; it’s not an unreasonable decision to obey in the hope that things won’t get worse. My point is that the situation was already bad when Moshe and Aharon started to take risks to make things better- and blaming them for Pharaoh’s oppression shows the desperate need of the people to believe that they has some small measure of control over their circumstances. It’s easier to be angry at the proximate source of disorder than to step back and realize that what needs to change is a whole way of thinking- in this case, what needed to change was the faith of Israelites, or lack thereof.

The signs and wonders that Moshe performed were as much for the Israelites as for Pharaoh- to show them that a new day was dawning, and to strengthen their courage for the upheavals to come. Major changes require patience, vision and courage; these are, in fact, things we do have some small measure of control over. It’s easier to blame another than to look at ourselves; but if we can find the fearlessness to do so, it’s entirely possible that signs, wonders, and miracles await.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

A summary and more commentaries can be found here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/shmot_index.htm

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