And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.'” And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” (Exodus 4:1-2)
The trepidation of Moshe (Moses) to accept the onus of leadership is understandable. After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what credibility would Moshe have in the eyes of the people? How would he convince them that he had truly been appointed by the Almighty to lead them out of slavery?
G-d’s answer, however, is more difficult to comprehend. If HaShem wanted Moshe to cast his staff upon the ground so it would miraculously transform into a snake, let Him simply have said, “Cast your staff upon the ground.” Why did the Almighty first ask Moshe to identify the object he was holding?
Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moshe had a choice of three possible answers. As a shepherd, Moshe could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook. As an eighty year old man, he could have refered to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick. Finally, he could have called it as he did — a mateh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.
Moshe’s objection was not directed solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader. And so, HaShem presented Moshe with a test. What is that in your hand? the Almighty asked, implying that Moshe’s answer would answer Moshe’s own question. Did Moshe see himself as an old man, needing a cane to support him? Did he see himself as a simple shepherd, adept at leading sheep but not his fellow Jews? Or did he see himself as possessing the nobility of character necessary to successfully shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.
Confronted with these choices, Moshe could only answer the truth. It was not lack of humility but honesty and integrity that compelled Moshe to admit that he was neither a feeble old man in need of support nor a mere shepherd whose purpose in life was defined by his lowly profession. Moshe recognized that the Almighty had made him something more, had instilled in him the qualities that prepared him for greatness.
Further on in the narrative, HaShem commands:
And this staff you shall take in your hand, with which you will perform the miracles (4:17)
As a constant reminder of Moshe’s confidence in himself, HaShem commanded him to carry the staff with him always, and to use it as the instrument through which he would bring about HaShem’s signs and wonders. In this way the Almighty communicated to Moshe that if Moshe believed in himself, the people would recognize his confidence and accept his leadership. And so they did.
In contrast, when the prophetess Devorah instructed her husband, Barak, to lead the people into battle against the Canaanite general Sisera, Barak refused to go unless Devorah accompanied him. Devorah replied: “I will surely go with you; however, your effort will bring you no honor” (Judges 4:9). Rather than rise to the occasion, Barak refused to believe that he could succeed on his own. Devorah did not argue, for she understood that no people will place their confidence in a leader who has no confidence in himself. Instead of becoming a hero, Barak assured his place as little more than a footnote to history.
It’s worth noting that accepting the responsibilities of leadership is not synonymous with seeking power. Moshe neither sought nor desired the position of leader over the Jewish people, but neither did he refuse the position when it was thrust upon him. From Moshe’s example we learn that a healthy reluctance to assume power over others is a sign of true character and authentic leadership.
Perhaps the most troubling development in contemporary politics is the selling of the presidency, as well as many state and local offices. Only the very rich — or those with very rich friends — can realistically aspire to positions of political authority. And what motivates those willing to spend their own millions or the millions of others to win the privilege of wielding power? When was the last time we saw even the palest reflection of the reticence of Moshe in any of our public servants?
During the era of the judges, the usurper Avimelech massacred his 70 half-brothers to seize control over the Jewish nation. Only one brother, Yosom, escaped and, before he fled into hiding, he paused to chastise the people for standing by and permitting Avimelech to carry out his bloody coup. In his rebuke, he offered a tantalizing parable, paraphased here:
The trees went looking for a leader. They came first to the olive tree, but the olive tree said, “Should I leave my oil to hold sway over the trees?” Next they came to the fig tree, but the fig tree said, “Should I leave my sweetness to hold sway over the trees?” Then they came to the grapevine, but the grapevine said, “Should I leave my wine to hold sway over the trees?” Finally, all the trees came to the thornbush, which said, “Come take comfort in my shade; and if not, a fire will go forth and devour you all” (Judges 8:7-15).
Of course, a thornbush has no shade to offer, and can do nothing but inflict injury and discomfort. But when men of quality and accomplishment (symbolized by the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine) recognize that the people have no desire to be led, but simply seek leaders who will do their bidding, then why should they abandon their own fortunes to shoulder the fruitless and thankless burdens of leadership?
And when no worthy leaders can be found, where else will the people turn than to those who make the promises the people want to hear, no matter how impractical or implausible? And how often are those promises complimented by threats, veiled or otherwise, of the consequences of looking elsewhere for “leadership”?
When leadership devolves into the hands of those who can afford to make the loudest noise and the most sweeping promises, then the people have no right to complain about the quality of the leaders to whom they have subordinated themselves. Only when people seek genuine leaders will they find individuals worthy of leadership. And only when people are willling to follow will they find worthy individuals willing to lead.