Choosing a new leader – what Moses might say to the 1922 committee

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?

Why it matters to stand with Pride

Tomorrow is Pride Shabbat, a celebration of LGBTQ Jews, friends, families, and allies of all ages. It comes at a critical moment in history.

I’ve been increasingly worried over the last years that in the time ahead we may find ourselves looking back and saying, ‘This was when those liberties we took almost for granted began to be rolled back.’ In some parts of the world such words won’t be said too loudly, because you can never be sure who might be listening.

I’m thinking of Russia, with its vicious war against Ukraine, and of the surveillance, threats and punishments faced by anyone who dares to dissent. There’s the proto-fascist politics of Hungary, and the growing strength in parts of Europe of the populist far right, so say nothing of the Middle East. The repressive role of certain religious groups in these trends is additionally disturbing.

We need to look west as well as east. Last week’s overturning of Roe v Wade by America’s Supreme Court opens the way for states to enact laws likely to target women, and families, in deeply invasive ways. It also bodes the possible curtailment of other freedoms. (I’m horrified too at the Court’s destructive, irresponsible and retrograde decision relating to the climate crisis.)

The Court’s verdict turned on what rights not specifically stated in the Constitution it considered to be implied under the 14th Amendment, particularly the right to privacy in personal matters including contraception, abortion, marriage and sexual orientation.

The issue, wrote Justice Alito in delivering the Court’s opinion, was whether the right to abortion could be considered ‘deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition’ and ‘essential to our Nation’s “scheme of ordered liberty.”’ But that ‘history and tradition’ was established at a time when women had little public, and no legal, voice.

If the Court deemed abortion not to qualify, what will come next?

This is Pride Shabbat. The struggle against repression and violent hatred has been long and cruel. It isn’t over, as last week’s murderous attack on a gay venue in Olso tragically showed. Support and allyship have rarely been more important than now, as Sadiq Kahn states so well:

As mayor, and as an ally to our incredible LGBTQ+ community, I’ve always been a passionate supporter of LGBTQ+ rights because I feel strongly that no one should ever face prejudice, discrimination or violence because of who they are or who they love.

As a rabbi, I’m well aware that there are hurtful texts to be faced in the heartland of our faith, in the Torah. I do so through what two thousand years ago ben Azzai considered the most foundational text of all, that every human being without exception is created in God’s image. To exclude someone from equal rights and privileges on grounds of sexual orientation is to disregard not only their humanity, but the presence of God in them, which is entrusted uniquely and specially to each and every person.

I believe God asks us not why our body chemistry is a certain way, but whether we are compassionate, just, trustworthy, respectful, generous, and committed to caring for each other and God’s world.

As Jews, we have often been in the front line of those whose rights to equality, if granted in the first place, have been threatened or withdrawn.

That too is why we should stand with Pride this Shabbat and celebrate the rich creativity of our community.

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