THE CONTRADICTIONS OF GREAT LEADERSHIP

December 30th, 2015

As we enter the year 2016 our attention is constantly distracted by the U.S. presidential elections that are now just eleven months away.

In most countries election campaigns last a few weeks, or at most a couple of months. Here in the U.S. the campaign has been ongoing for several months, and with each passing week it has become more intense and more dominant. It is hard to believe that the election itself is still almost a year away, although I guess it gives us all a decent amount of time to reflect on who will make a good leader for the world’s only superpower.

The Jewish paradigm of leadership is Moses, to whom we are introduced for the first time in the Torah portion of Shemot. He epitomizes the qualities of leadership required to galvanize a demoralized group of people and shape them up into a proud nation, while at the same time negotiating for their freedom with the despotic ruler who has enslaved them.

But even before he sets out on his mission to take on the mantle of leadership, we get a glimpse into his personality at the episode when he encounters God in the Burning Bush.

The incident is both enchanting and mystifying, full of symbolism and details that require explanation and clarification. Some aspects of this encounter have polarized rabbinic opinion, and it is one of these disputes that I would like to share with you.

There’s that old joke about two people who visit the rabbi to arbitrate a dispute. The rabbi hears the first litigant out, and when he’s finished tells him “you’re right!” Then he listens to the second litigant, and after he is done the rabbi says, “you’re right too!” A third person, who has been listening to the proceedings, is utterly perplexed. “How can they both be right?” he asks the rabbi, “either one of them is correct, or the other one is – they cannot both be right!” The rabbi turns to him, smiles, and says: “do you know what – you’re also right!”

I was reminded of this joke reading through an observation made by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935) on this episode of Moses’ first encounter with God. When he first spotted the Burning Bush, Moses was so overawed that he covered up his face so that he would not even have to glimpse it (Ex. 3:6):

וַיַסְתֵר מֹשֶה פָנָיו כִי יָרֵא מֵהַבִיט אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים “Moshe hid his face as he was afraid to look directly at God.”

The Talmud in Berachot records a debate as to whether or not this was appropriate. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha suggests that the reason Moses was later prevented from seeing God ‘directly’, whatever that means, was because when he had had the opportunity to do so he chose not to.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yohanan praises Moses’ reluctance to gaze at God, and declares that Moshe was rewarded generously for this humility.

So which is it? Is Rabbi Yehoshua right, or is Rabbi Yochanan right?

Rabbi Kook argues that each rabbi represents a different view of how best to get close to God? The medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, believes that the perfect God-man relationship is achieved by engaging with God as much as possible and at every opportunity. If we do not grab each opportunity we get we will end up drifting out of God’s orbit, and will later find it more difficult to achieve the fullest possible relationship.

This idea seems to be in line with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua. When Moses hid his face at the Burning Bush he lost his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that ‘facetime’ experience with God.

The eleventh century author of Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Rabbeinu Bahya Ibn Paquda, has a totally different take. According to him we get closest to God by perfecting our character and moral behavior. Brazenness may get us places, even spiritual places, but it is so detrimental to our core morality that we must avoid it.

This view seems to concur with the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan, who praises Moses’ humility and says he was rewarded for it. Moses surely wanted to encounter God face-to-face, but when the opportunity arose he held himself back, preferring to exercise restraint and modesty in an ultimate act of spiritual self-sacrifice. What Moshe gained from this act far outweighed any benefit that might have resulted from gazing at the Burning Bush.

The upshot is that two opposing views can coexist, and both can be right, even when they contradict each other. Moshe was a great leader exactly because he sacrificed his chance to see God, which harmed him, but which also enabled him to remain the incredible person that he was – the superlative prophet with a direct line to God who remained in touch with his people and reality, never allowing his status to obscure the fact that he was an ordinary, fallible human being.

As 2016 unfolds this might be a message worth remembering. Leadership is not just about charisma, or talent, or intellect, or experience. It is about all of those things, but only as long as they are carefully calibrated with humanity, humility, modesty, and unpretentiousness.

How many among those who have fielded themselves as potential leaders for the United States can combine their superior leadership qualities with the self-effacement that should underline everything they do and say? All we need is one.

Photo: Moses at the Burning Bush, by illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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