When Moses first returned to Egypt to lead the children of Israel to freedom, his mission seemed to be going well but the early sense of success was short-lived. Things started to go wrong, and continued going wrong.
His first appearance before Pharaoh was a disaster. Pharaoh mocked God, rejected Moses’ request to let the people travel into the wilderness to worship, and increased the hardships on the people. They were required to make the same number of bricks but had to find their own raw materials. The result was that the Israelites turned against Moses:
“May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Ex. 5:21).
Moses and Aaron returned multiple times to Pharaoh with their persistent request. Pharaoh remains increasingly un-cooperative. The plagues do not move him; he refuses to let the Israelites go. Though Moses has done everything God instructed him to do, the Israelites are still slaves.
The stress Moses felt is reflected in his prayer to God:
“Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all” (Ex. 5:22-23).
There is a profound message here. True leaders often experience failure.
Abraham Lincoln faced countless setbacks during the civil war. He was a deeply divisive figure, hated by many in his lifetime. Gandhi failed in his dream of uniting Muslims and Hindus together in a single nation. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, accused of treason and regarded as a violent agitator. Winston Churchill was held in low regard by the 1930s, and even after his heroic leadership during the Second World War was voted out of office at the first General Election after the war was over.
Principle: Heroes only appear heroic in retrospect when the setbacks and/or failures they faced can finally be seen as stepping stones to their greatness. Whether spiritual or secular, leaders are tested not by their successes but by their failures. It takes no special skill to succeed when the times are favorable. It’s when situations and conditions change that character is tested.
The great men and women of history are not those who never failed. They are those who survived failure, who kept on going, who refused to be defeated, who never gave up or gave in. They kept striving and they learned from every mistake. They viewed failure as a learning experience. Defeat was not an option; their drive was to become stronger, wiser and more determined. That summarizes the life of Moses as described in last week’s Torah reading and this one as well.
Jim Collins, in his book HOW THE MIGHTY FALL, explains it this way:
The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before … The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat… and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.