The Torah contemplates something parallel to the national leadership dynamics situation we are judging right now, about the relationship between the president’s words and acts and the actions of the rioters. Thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for directing my attention to a source on this. I’m linking his shiur (lesson) on the text, but I haven’t listened to it yet (I will, but it’s an hour!). So the take on the text here is mine and we’ll see how it tracks Rav Klapper’s.
This week’s Torah reading in Jewish communities is the beginning of the book of Exodus. Chapters 1-2 are about the progression from Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites to slavery to the murder of baby boys, and then about resistance. Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (medieval Spanish commentator) lays out an interpretation of what the Torah text presents us.
Nachamides taught that Pharaoh had the whole project of enslavement and murder in mind at the start. But he did not begin that way specifically because his people would have recoiled at that, and Pharaoh was constrained by the willingness of his people at a given moment. So first he proposed a corvee, a small forced-labor tax, because his people would have regarded that as common and acceptable behavior toward foreigners.
Then according to Nachmanides, Pharaoh approached the midwives serving Israelite mothers behind closed doors about killing newborn boys, so that even mothers giving birth and arranging for a midwife wouldn’t know what might happen. When that didn’t work, Pharaoh next move was to say to his whole people that they should throw baby boys into the Nile. The Torah says Pharaoh commanded, and Nachmanides says Pharaoh spoke in a more common way, because he didn’t want to assign the task to any specific official. He did not want the act to be associated with his regime specifically, but with the people as a whole. By now they were willing to do things publicly they were not willing to do at first. Nachmanides posits that Pharaoh was also preserving his right to disavow any specific act. If an Israelite father would come to a local official about his own baby, Pharaoh would invite the father to offer proof and then punish the killer himself.
But Nachmanides says that eventually this set of winks became impossible and Egyptian mobs began to storm Israelite homes in search of babies. That was the situation in which Moses’ mother Yocheved knew to give birth in secret and hide the birth and the child, and that’s what led eventually to the acts of resistance involving midwives, Moses’ sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Nachmanides is pointing out that there is more to leadership responsibility than accountability for explicit orders. There is more than what is said out loud, clearly, or publicly. There is a complex feedback dynamic between the leader and the group. The group sometimes constrains the leader; the group can amplify the leader’s general direction in ways of its own that are sometimes predictable and sometimes not; the group has its own reality that is not the same as the regime; there are resisters both inside and outside. It’s worth sitting with the Torah’s story and this kind of interpretation on its own, and then thinking and talking about how it might speak to us right now.
What is the moral responsibility of the leader? Is the group responsible only for its own actions, or for anything about its leader as well? These moral responsibilities of leader and group aren’t identifical but overlap in some way. These are what we should be thinking about, from each of our positions as Americans, partial or substantial supporters or opponents of the president, citizen-judges of what happened this week and what ought to happen going forward.