My colleagues in America circulated the following Communal Prayer in Anticipation of a US Election Season. It reads, in part:
Help us to recognize the gift of our vibrant and open democracy and the responsibility to nurture it. Strengthen us to take our duties as citizens seriously, to hold in our minds and hearts all that is at stake in this election and to fulfil our obligations with integrity. May we discern Your Divine presence and amplify Your teachings through our actions and commitments.
It’s a beautiful prayer, composed in the context of a most unbeautiful campaign. This morning’s New York Times refers to the latest poll, not about who’ll win but about how Americans regard the whole process:
An overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted by the state of American politics, and many harbor doubts that either major-party nominee can unite the country after a historically ugly presidential campaign… With more than eight in 10 voters saying the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited, the rising toxicity threatens the ultimate victor.
One can only hope that out of this mire, true leadership will somehow emerge. It is not only in America that it is needed.
But what is real leadership? The Torah, as so often, answers the question indirectly.
It’s customary to contrast the ‘leadership styles’ of Noah, this week’s hero, and Abraham. But a comparison with Moses is no less telling.
Noah does what God tells him. ‘Make an ark’; he makes it. ‘Take two of every species’; he rounds them up (it would be fascinating to know how.) ‘Enter the ark’; he goes in. ‘Exit the ark’; he comes out. He speaks not one word. Only, according to the Zohar, when he sees the devastated landscape after the Flood, he weeps. ‘Why’, God then chides him, ‘Didn’t you weep before?’ It’s hard on Noah, who, following a different – rabbinic – tradition, tried to no avail for over a hundred years to persuade his contemporaries not destroy to the earth. Perhaps it was despair which reduced him to speechlessness, and tears.
Moses is not a man of silence, notwithstanding his protest that he lacks eloquence. He’s a person who lacks the dubious capacity not to get involved. Watching Moses catch sight of the burning bush, God observes that ‘he turned aside to see’. The obvious meaning is that Moses turned off the beaten track to take a closer look at this strange horticultural phenomenon.
Rabbinic tradition understands God’s observation more profoundly. God isn’t interested in being a prototype of Google Earth. What God sees is how, at the sight of the toiling slaves, Moses ‘Prince of Egypt’ leaves his royal entourage to ‘behold the burdens’ of the most despised and abject outcasts from society. He observes their labour not with objective vision only, as the object of passing curiosity. Instead, he sees ‘with’ their sufferings; he looks, and at once he feels. By the time he returns to the palace, a crucial question of identity has been resolved forever in Moses’s heart: it is this people who are his people; it is the slaves, not the Pharaohs, who are his true brothers.
That’s why God makes him leader.
May we have leaders who ‘turn aside to see’. May we recognize those who ‘turn aside to see’ as our true leaders.