Parashat Shemot: The First Leader and the First King

  • Harav Yaakov Medan


Dedicated in memory of Gertrude and Samuel Spiegel z”l
by Michael and Patti Steinmetz



a.            Moshe and Shaul


A particularly well-known and beloved midrash in Shemot Rabba describes Moshe in his shepherding role, chasing after a kid goat that has separated from the herd. Moshe follows the kid all the way to Mount Chorev, where he encounters the burning bush. The midrash demonstrates the responsibility shown by Moshe towards his flock as a test of his suitability to lead God’s flock – Am Yisrael:


“Our rabbis said: When Moshe Rabbeinu, of blessed memory, was shepherding Yitro’s flocks in the wilderness, a kid goat ran away, and he chased it until it reached a certain plant. When it reached the plant there appeared a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moshe caught up to it, he said, ‘I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty; you are tired.’ He put the kid on his shoulders and walked on. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘If you have such compassion in dealing with the flock belonging to humans, by your life – you will shepherd My flock, Israel.’” (Shemot Rabba 2:2)


How did Chazal arrive at this story?


Perhaps the background to this midrash is the comparison that the text draws between Moshe, the first leader of the nation, delivering them from Egypt, and Shaul, the first king, who is meant to deliver Israel from the Pelishtim. Concerning Shaul’s appointment we read:


“Now God had revealed to Shmuel a day before Shaul came, saying: Tomorrow at this time I will send you a man from the land of Binyamin, and you shall anoint him as prince over My people, Israel, that he may deliver Israel from the hand of the Pelishtim; for I have looked upon My people, because their cry has come to Me.” (Shmuel I 9:15-16)


The same expression is to be found in our parasha:


“I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt… and now, behold, the cry of Bnei Yisrael has come to Me.”


Similarly, Shaul’s great victory in the battle against the Pelishtim is compared to the victory over Egypt: “And God saved Israel that day, and the battle passed beyond Beit-Aven” (Shmuel I 14:23). Similarly, we find in Shemot (14:30), “And God saved Israel that day from the hand of Egypt.”


Shaul’s refusal to accept the kingship owing to his tribe being the youngest of Israel, and his family “the least of all the families of the tribe of Binyamin,” recall Moshe’s refusal to accept God’s mission, claiming, “Who am I….”


In addition, the three signs that Shaul receives when Shmuel anoints him parallel the three signs that Moshe is given in order to show to the people. And the base people who scorn Shaul on the day of his coronation play a similar role to the officers of Bnei Yisrael (Datan and Aviram, according to the midrash), who heap scorn on Moshe and Aharon when they emerge from Pharaoh’s palace.


Shaul finds himself anointed “accidentally” – he is pursuing the donkeys belonging to his father, Kish, which had gone missing (Shmuel I 9). And in the midrash, in parallel fashion, Chazal describe the appointment of Moshe: he arrives at the bush in Chorev “by accident,” having followed a kid that had escaped from the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law. Both future leaders are told that the state of the wandering, leaderless flock of God – Am Yisrael – is more critical than the loss of the animal flock, and they are called upon to fulfill a more important mission.


b.            Leader vs. King


Having reviewed the points of comparison between the first leader[1] and the first king of Am Yisrael, let us now consider two differences between them.


1.    Moshe is praised in the Torah for his humility: “Now the man Moshe was very humble, more so than all the men that were upon the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). Shaul is praised for his humility but also castigated:


“Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Why was Shaul punished? Because he was forgiving concerning his own honor, as it is said (Shmuel I 10:27), ‘And base men said, How shall this man save us? … But he held his peace.’” (Yalkut Shimoni 117)


Apparently, a distinction must be drawn between humility that has its source in a person’s recognition of his lowly stature before God, with the sense that he has nothing “of himself,” and humility that arises from a sense of “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (Shmuel I 15:24) – the meekness of a leader who does not feel fear of standing before God, but rather fears standing up to the people. The former is the humility of Moshe, and this feeling in no way reduces his leadership ability and his sense of responsibility towards the people. The latter is the meekness of Shaul, and it contains a measure of timidity and insecurity.


2.    Both Moshe and Shaul are informed that, owing to their sin, the kingship will be taken from them and given to another. Moshe himself asks to transfer the reins of power to Yehoshua, and he lays both hands on him, with wholehearted magnanimity. Shaul, from the moment he sees that the kingdom will pass to David, begins to pursue him and tries to thwart God’s plan in every possible way, and at any cost.


Perhaps these two differences are really one and the same. Kingship is conferred as a means. The aim, in both cases, is the deliverance of Israel. In the case of Moshe, his leadership remained, until the end, a means to that end. For Shaul, the kingship changed from a means into an end in its own right, with all other goals subservient to it. This, then, became the source of sin.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] According to the Rambam (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 6:11), Moshe himself was the first king of the Jewish people. See also Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni and others on Bereishit 36:31.