In these days of crisis, surprisingly enough I find myself asking what Judaism has to say about the characteristics needed for national leadership. Admittedly there’s a difference between being appointed by God and being elected by whatever procedures the 1922 committee may determine. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see what qualities the rabbis understood God to be looking for.
The founding leader of the Jewish people is Abraham. Why him, asks Nachmanides, before answering: because he will leave a legacy of tzedakah umishpat, of social and moral justice.
But the leader par excellence is Moses. What a terrible loss that the Torah tells us so little about the women who must also have led the Jewish People.
It’s interesting to consider both the start and the end of Moses’ career. It apparently begins when ‘God sees that he turned aside to see’ the marvel of the burning bush, where God tasks him with the mission impossible of freeing his people from slavery and, in a way which only God can, refuses to take no for an answer.
But this is not how a poignant midrash understand the matter; it’s something else, something earlier, which God has observed Moses ‘turning aside to see.’
A privileged young man brought up in the Oxbridge bastion of Pharaoh’s palace, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers and sees their burdens.’ More exactly translated, ‘he sees with their burdens.’ He feels for the people. As Rashi comments, he witnesses the heaviest burdens placed with deliberate cruelty on the weakest. The experience changes his life. It’s that which God ‘sees Moses see.’ It’s this empathy which makes God decide that Moses is a leader.
When the end of his career approaches, Moses cries out to heaven: ‘God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community…’ Why, Rashi asks, does Moses address God in this manner, with words used virtually nowhere else in the Torah:
Master of the world, Moses says, you know the temperaments of each and every person, how different they are from one another. Appoint a leader who will bear with each of them according to their views.
One senses the bitter experience which underlies those words. Moses asks God to find a successor capable of showing compassionate understanding for the troubles and feelings of each unique individual. I’m reminded of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words that his successor will need ‘the hide of a rhinoceros and the strength of an ox.’
As if that’s not challenge enough, Moses continues to describe the attributes of this putative figure ‘who will go out before the [people], and come in before them; who will take them out and who will bring them in.’ His ideal person must be able to guide both from the front and the middle, have sufficient courage to be out there ahead yet enough empathy to stand in solidarity and listen.
It’s not just a tall order; it’s impossible. It’s scarcely surprising the Bible is full of leaders who don’t make the grade.
Moses himself isn’t perfect; he can be rash, gets frustrated, loses his temper, and, arguably, makes strategic leadership errors. But he’s humble, he listens, he has no tolerance for injustice, he’s prepared to put himself on the line and he’s devoted to service.
While hoping against hope for national and international leaders who possess these qualities, it’s important not to forget a question closer to home: with what values and commitments am I leading my own life?