The most powerful ritual in American life is the oath of office administered to our President. The text is prescribed by the Constitution, but its choreography is a matter of convention. Most Presidents have placed their left hand on a Bible as they raise their right and swear to execute their office faithfully, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This ritual signals solemnity and anticipation for the work awaiting our new leader.
The weaker arm (left, for most of us) is strengthened by contact with Scripture, as if to say that true strength comes not from muscles but from virtue. This gesture recalls Deuteronomy 17:18-19 where the new king is commanded to write a copy of the Torah, to read it and keep it close by so that they will learn to revere God and guard the divine precepts. This pose also reminds me of wearing tefillin, with the left hand linked to the divine word, and the right ready for resolute and righteous action.
Those who take an oath—whether of testimony, of office, or of military commission—raise their right hand, alluding perhaps to Isaiah 62:8, “the Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm” (NJPS translation). In the civic oath ritual, the President commits to guard our American covenant with faithfulness, to draw strength from the people, and to hold nothing higher than their constitutional duties.
The raised right hand is open and empty, which to me implies transparency and readiness for action. One cannot commit fully to a new task while clinging still to an old one. This point is made in our Torah portion, just before the people of Israel commences its duties in worshipping God. Chapter 12 of Exodus contains instructions for the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, beginning with the designation of the animal. Moses calls the elders of Israel and says to them, “Draw out and take yourselves sheep according to your clans and slaughter the Passover offering” (Exod. 12:21, trans. Robert Alter).
Here come the plagues: blood, frogs, vermin…. The first triad relates to the Nile, whose “bloody” waters (reddened perhaps from sediment and algae washed down by heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands) kill off the fish and drive the frogs up on the land. The rotten flesh produces kinnim, maybe a type of fly or mosquito, that torments the population. Swarming mosquitos are surely loathsome, but frogs remain the most charismatic creatures in the plague narrative.
Ancient Egyptians venerated a frog-headed goddess named Heqet, who was associated with fertility. But the river had been used to kill off the Israelite boys. As such these first plagues may have been intended as “measure for measure” for Pharaoh’s genocidal attack. Since the plagues rise vertically from ground to sky, they teach both Egyptians and Israelites that the LORD is sovereign over heaven and earth.
Frogs are unusual messengers for such an exalted theological lesson. They may not be cute, but neither are they terrifying. As the fetching “Frog Song” puts it, “One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed there were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head, frogs on his nose, frogs on his toes, frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere!” The comical potential of this reptilian plague was not lost on our ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva notices a shift from plural to singular in Exodus 8:2: “Aaron reached his hand out over the Egyptian waters and the frog rose and covered the land of Egypt.” Can you imagine Akiva’s Godzilla scale amphibian? Apparently this was too much for some of his peers.
What was Moses doing just before his first divine encounter? The Torah’s description seems quotidian, utterly unremarkable. He was tending Jethro’s flock, and “he drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). That is, the moments preceding the theophany at the burning bush were spent caring for animals, far from human settlements. In Midrash Shemot Rabbah, the Rabbis notice this context and discern that God chooses servants who act with humility towards animals, and in this way prove themselves worthy. Humility is the first requirement of leadership.
Psalm 103:7-8 says of God, “He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (NJPS). Much later, when Moses asks God to reveal the divine ways, God responds with the famous attributes of compassion (Exod. 33). As Midrash Shemot Rabbah concludes, compassion is the essential divine quality, and compassion is the point of connection between Moses and God. It is not enough to be humble towards other creatures. We must also act with compassion, providing for their needs, and using our resources to protect them. Compassion is the second requirement of leadership.
Moses drove the sheep into the wilderness. Why? The Rabbis says that it was to avoid “theft.” Shepherds have trouble preventing their flocks from grazing on lands that belong to others. Some don’t even try, but Moses pushed his flocks away from settlements so that his animals wouldn’t graze on what wasn’t theirs. Mishnah Bava Kamma 7:7 says that it is forbidden to raise small animals like sheep and goats in settled areas of Israel because they will eat up the crops, and lead people to steal from each other. Moses moved to the wilderness not in order to meditate alone at the mountain of God, but for a simpler reason—to avoid taking what wasn’t his. He could have made excuses—the flocks belonged to Yitro, not to him. The animals followed their own appetites, and ate what they found. But Moses took responsibility for those in his charge, demonstrating integrity. Integrity is a third requirement for leadership.
The portrait of leadership that emerges from our introduction to Moses is of humility, compassion, and integrity. These qualities should not be taken for granted; they are the path to spiritual greatness. While none of us can hope to perfect our own qualities of humility, compassion, and integrity, we must name them as our ideals and integrate them into our practice with intention and intensity. This is the way of legitimate leadership and spiritual power.