A Lesson on Leadership
World leaders are much in the news these days in France, in India and Pakistan, and of course in the US and in the Middle East. These leaders are being scrutinized every day for their actions or lack of action, for the quality of their character and for their ability to lead their people. Undoubtedly, ;a poll on their effectiveness as leaders would yield varying opinions, but our parashah this week gives us insight into some qualities that a leader should possess.
God tells Moses to “ascend these heights of Abarim” as he is soon to be “gathered to his kin,” never entering the Promised Land (Numbers 27:12, 14). Swallowing this bitter pill — of having led the cantankerous Israelites toward the promised land and yet not being permitted to enter it — must have been very difficult for Moses, yet his reaction here is magnanimous. His thoughts are not for himself, but for the future of his people, which is the mark of an extraordinary leader. He says to God: “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” (Numbers 27:16–18). God then tells Moses to appoint Joshua son of Nun, “a man in whom is spirit” (ish asher ru’ah bo)––as leader–– and lay his hand upon him (27:18).
Commentators, ever sensitive to the language of the Torah, are surprised by Moses’ words in verse 16: “Source of the breath of all flesh” (Elohay ha–ruhot l’khol basar), which may also be translated as “God of the spirits of all flesh”. Surely, the Torah could have referred simply to the “God of all flesh”. Why the added “breath” or “spirits”? Rashi, quoting the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, has one response: “He [Moses] said to Him: “Lord of the Universe! The dispositions of each and every person are manifest to you, and you know that they are not similar to each other. Appoint a leader for them who will bear with each other person according to his disposition.”
Rashi and the Midrash make note of the fact that an effective leader needs to understand his or her people, understand their differences and their desires, and respond to each one’s particular needs. Doubtless these commentators would acknowledge that to respond individually all the time would be impossible. But the desire must be there on the part of the leader, and the attempt to satisfy as many needs as possible must be made. Moses certainly lived and responded to the very different needs and demands of his people — for food, for water, for assurance from God and for justice. Moses would say to President Bush, Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Arafat (to name three leaders ever in my consciousness): “Understand that your people are not monolithic, and your job as leader — as difficult as it may be — is to respond responsibly to their diverse needs.” To President Bush, Moses might say: “Understand the needs of your people who want to build businesses and increase production and wealth for the US, but also understand the needs of your people who value clean air, water, and green spaces that add to our health and quality of life.” To Prime Minister Sharon, Moses might say: “Understand your people’s needs for secure borders and a life free from fear, but also understand your people who feel those borders must be achieved in as moral a way as possible.” To Chairman Arafat, Moses might say: “Understand the pain and rage of many of your people, but also respond to and work for your people who may deeply desire peace, and who may not feel free to express that desire openly”. Moses would be the first to acknowledge that responding to these diverse needs is enormously difficult, but he would also underscore that to do any less would not be acting as a responsible leader.
God listens to Moses, and tells him to appoint Joshua ben Nun, “a man in whom is spirit” (Numbers 27:18), a man, as Rashi and the Midrash Sifre see it, who will understand the “spirit” of each one of his people. My prayer is that God will also listen to our prayers, for the leaders in the world, and in our personal lives, who will be sensitive and responsive to the needs and desires of all of us, wherever we may live.
Rabbi Melissa Crespy