Leadership qualities: Moses shows us what being a leader means

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Pinchas Numbers 25:10-30:1

In our Torah reading this Shabbat G-d tells Moses to prepare for death, and Moses, in response, asks G-d to appoint his successor.  When Moses is confronted with his own mortality, the text tells us, his first response is to think not about himself, but about his successor.  Who will take his place and lead the people into the Land of Canaan?  

The text tells us:  “Moses spoke to the Lord saying:  ‘Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them, and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’” These words show Moses’ concern for his people and his successor.

Rashi, the Biblical commentator, suggests that the first phrase states that a leader must lead from the front, not sending his people into battle while staying in safety himself.  He points out that is exactly why the people loved David and followed him into battle.  We know it as the watchword of Israel’s military leaders as they declare Acharai – “After me.”  

Rashi suggests the second phrase has two different explanations.  His first commentary suggests that his successor should be one “who will lead them to victory through his merits.”  And then, he seems to add a measure of protest from Moses:  “Do not do to my successor what you did to me, denying me the chance to lead the people into the land.”  Moses implores G-d to let his successor finish the journey, a task and a privilege that he himself was not granted.  

With Moses’ words and Rashi’s comments, we have an excellent concept of leadership not only for Moses’ successor, but for us, as well.  A leader must be one who leads by example and must merit the mantle of leadership so as to be respected by all.  A leader also must be prepared to protest what he feels to be an injustice and not be afraid to speak truth to power.  

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in an article in June, 2012 on leadership states there are seven axioms of leadership that show the mettle of a true Jewish leader:

Principle One:  Leadership begins with taking responsibility.  Moses was one who understood that requirement.  He slew an Egyptian when he saw the taskmaster striking an Israelite slave.  Later he stood up to G-d after the Israelites had sinned with the Golden Calf, being unwilling to lead the people unless G-d forgave them.

Principle Two:  No one can lead alone.  Moses learned this lesson the hard way.  It was his father-in-law, Yitro, who made sure that he was not overburdened and suggested that he needed assistance to judge all the people.  While there was tension with his brother and sister, both Miriam and Aaron were leaders in their own right and were central to Moses’ undertaking his great task.

Principle Three:  Leadership is about the future.  In the story quoted above when G-d tells Moses that he will not see his fondest wish fulfilled he understands that he alone is not the whole measure of the story, it is the Jewish people.  He is concerned about their fate and implores G-d to appoint a leader who will merit leading them into the land.  

Principle Four:  Leaders learn.  By the time Joshua had taken over leadership of the people after Moses’ death, he is commanded:  “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night.”  Joshua is to remember the past, learn from it, and understand that he is fulfilling a mission that was started by Moses in partnership with G-d.

Principle Five:  Leadership means believing in the people you lead.  There were times that Moses was not so sure.  He was worried they would not believe him, as he spoke to G-d at the Burning Bush and assumed the mantel of leadership.  He showed concern that the people would be led astray and not follow his lead as they complain over and over again in the desert.  One can only imagine how difficult it was for Moses to lead his people with their many misdeeds and complaints and I am sure there were moments of doubt whether he could accomplish his mission.

Principle Six:  Leadership involves a sense of timing and pace.  Rabbi Sacks suggests, based on our verse in Parshat Pinchas, that a leader must not be so far out in front that when he turns around he finds no one following.  Moses didn’t always learn the delicate balance between leading from the front and going at a pace that people can bear.  These were slaves who had left Egypt, they were individuals who had never tasted freedom, and Moses sometimes may have expected too much from them.

Principle Seven:  Leadership is stressful and emotionally demanding.  One can understand this statement throughout Moses’ life.  Many times he was alone at the top, unable to handle the emotional responsibilities of leadership.  He complained to G-d many times, even asking Him to take his life, and he hit the rock out of anger rather than following the instructions to speak to it.  It is tough to be a leader and not everybody can stand up to the pressures that are present.  Moses was, after all, only human and sometimes succumbed to those pressures.  

With Moses we have the best example of both the burdens of leadership and the responsibilities and privileges of leading.  It is a very tough task and Moses asks G-d to bless the next leader with the ability to truly lead the people.

Rabbi Sacks suggests that leaders lead “because they know that to stand idly by and expect others to do the work is the too – easy option… To lead is to serve.”  

I pray that we may find leaders among us who can truly lead like Moses, concerned not for their own self-importance, but with the great mission of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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