The Secret of Leadership
Every so often I speculate on how Moshe (Moses) would react to our 21st century version of Judaism. Would he recognize its strange traditions? Could he comprehend its (so called) Mosaic rules and regulations? Would he ask why and when the dramatic changes took place? Would he ask why people who claim to have complete faith in the divine and in the absolute truth of the Torah, ignore or dismiss the essence of what they believe? Equally challenging for him would be the overwhelming majority of Jews who do not observe his Torah and find the many tenets of his faith irrelevant.
In analyzing this week’s Torah portion we may find some answers to these questions. As Moshe prepares for the eventuality of life, he highlights what he believes to be the fundamentals needed to ensure future generations’ eternal connection to Sinai. He is unafraid to talk of his personal failures and difficulties and focuses on ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. He states: Echah esa l’vadi – How can I alone carry the people? By acknowledging his inability to carry the entire burden of his people and seeking assistance in this monumental task, he illuminates what it means to be a leader.
It all seems trivial until you read between the lines. He never tells the new leaders that their purpose is to legislate, implement changes, or enact new laws. He never asks them to make excessive demands on the people. He doesn’t offer insights into navigating political machinations or give advice for future advancements. He subtly says that leadership is not about sympathy, it’s about empathy. It’s not about sharing the burden but about transferring the burden to yourself. V’atzaveh et shofteichem – And I charged your judges…hear your brothers and judge between brothers. First and foremost the people who come to you must be treated with dignity and respect. He continues by telling them that in accepting this position of leadership your life is forever changed. You are no longer independent and free; you are subservient to the needs of your people.
I grew up in the post McCarthy era and vividly remember the slogan: better dead than red. We were taught to love democracy and hate communism although we couldn’t articulate what the actual differences were. We knew in our hearts that communist and socialist leaders enriched themselves through the sweat and subjugation of their constituents. They used fear and manipulation to accomplish their goals, and enacted legislative policies that were vindictive and demeaning. They promised to spread the wealth, but their intention was to spread it into the lining of their own clothes.
In Gerona, no hint of anything Jewish remains. Instead, the town whitewashed the past and boasts how the spread of Gerona Jewry positively influenced the world. They barely mention the expulsion and forced conversions and to the casual observer it would appear that one day the Jews just upped and left or decided to embrace Christianity. No excuses, no shame, no guilt, and definitely no apologies or requests for forgiveness. Like the Nazis, they procured deeds of sale of Jewish land and procured these deeds through coercion or threats of death.
Sadly I see the events of the past week through a similar lens. I see that the Iran nuclear deal is full of promises that will never be fulfilled. It would be nice to imagine that the Iranian regime has peaceful intentions, but I hear what emanates from the mouths of its leaders and know what is in their hearts. I hear the chants: death to Israel, death to the USA, and I realize that real leadership is lacking. I see citizens living in a constant state of fear and realize their leaders have failed to heed the advice of Moshe.
Our leaders have much to answer for as well. Leadership means that sometimes we have to stand up to tyrannical regimes and say clearly: better dead than red. We have to be ready to forego a façade of peace and stand by our long term allies. Can you imagine how President Kennedy would react if he saw the Cuban flag flying over its embassy in Washington DC? He would reflect on the demise of true leaders and how quickly the Cuban missile crisis was forgotten. He would ask, has anything changed, and are the citizens of Cuba better off now? Are they entitled to the freedoms that we take for granted? Are the Castro brothers’ motivation solely the welfare of their citizens?
Am I stereotyping? Yes, there are leaders who are altruistic, but the overwhelming majority have philosophies that usually serve the interest of the elite. Sadly, what I see in Iran and Cuba I also see in western democracies. The self-aggrandizement of a Donald Trump is only one example. Does anyone really think his candidacy is based on the welfare of his fellow citizens? (If so, I think he has the Trump Bridge to sell you.)
Sadly, what ails the world also ails the Jews. Instead of our leaders following the Mosaic principle of helping their brother, they use their position to control the masses through legislating burdensome stringencies. Instead of listening to the voices of their brothers and sisters, they demand silence and obedience. They claim they are the torchbearers of truth and that only their voices may be heard. They use their political machines to force their followers into submission. They have forgotten the teaching of Moshe and have replaced it with an alien theology. Tisha B’Av reminds us to learn from the past and remember our history is replete with leaders that failed to lead. The Talmud states that sinat chinam – idle hatred was the reason the temple was destroyed. However, the idle hatred stemmed from a corrupt leadership who were self-serving and failed to inspire its citizen. Im eshkachech Yerushalyayim – if I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem reminds us that we must never allow a repetition of the mistakes that led to our two thousand year exile.
We are so easily impressed by those who wax eloquently, utter meaningless jargon and beautiful expressions. Leaders tout impressive thoughts such as brotherly love, tolerance, and world peace. They created and financed an organization whose charter promotes global serenity and security. Yet we realize the ultimate futility of words alone. We know too well that the actions rarely if ever live up to the sound bites. Although we may be justified in criticizing the hypocrisy in the UN, we may be better served by scrutinizing ourselves.
I think if Moshe could come back to earth he would see a world where leaders are being carried instead of doing the carrying. He would regrettably understand what led to the systematic decline in religious observance. He would remind us to read the words of the Torah; eicha esa l’vadi – indeed I may not be able to carry the burden alone but we have to try nonetheless.
Shabbat Shalom and have an easy fast,
Rabbi Jack Engel