Moses, the Charismatic Leader
It would have been sufficient. The refrain of dayenu that reverberated through seders around the world still rings in my ears. If God had only led us out of Egypt; if God had only split the sea for us; if God had only given us manna on Shabbat; if God had only brought us to the Land of Israel. Our nights were filled with recognition and praise and pressure to experience the moment of the Exodus from Egypt, as if each and every one of us were present.
But for an evening that encourages us to relive the Exodus, it falls short. On some level I recognize the need for the rabbinic “spin”, but essential to the Exodus was a man who gets short shrift in the Haggadah. There is the old seder joke that the first person to find Moses’ name twice in the Haggadah gets a thousand dollar afikomen prize — but the disparities between the Exodus narrative and the Haggadah retelling are even more severe than if Fox News and CNN had both reported the story.
Ignoring the centrality of Moses in the Exodus narrative presents a story that is bereft of human leadership, and if that leadership is not transmitted, there is no lesson to learn, no model to guide us.
In the Exodus story, Moses stands in the breach between God and humanity, as an emissary, translator, and arbitrator. Dr. Stephen Geller of JTS, in an article entitled “Who May Rule the People of God?”, addressed Biblical leadership and the qualities it has historically possessed. There is a tension, Dr. Geller asserts, between charismatic and non–charismatic leadership. “Charisma here means not some innate quality of leadership emanating from gifted individuals, but an ecstasy, a force of spirit, often presented almost as physical.”
Moses maintained a special relationship with God, a relationship we learn from the end of the Torah that would never be matched. With that relationship, came the purest version of this quality of charisma — the Tanakh calls it ruah. Despite this divine spark, and throughout the Exodus saga, Moses frequently had difficulty with the people. And, when faced with the realities of leadership — that it is too difficult to do it alone — Moses realized that things must change.
Just after the Exodus, Moses’ father–in–law, Jethro, observes Moses responding to the people who seek his wisdom in their desire to become closer to God. Overwhelmed by the throngs, Jethro counsels Moses to seek assistance in bearing this burden or it will surely not only overcome Moses, but affect the people detrimentally as well. Moses responds by appointing leaders to assist in his deliberations. He chooses “…able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain” (Exodus 18:21).
In the book of Numbers, in the portion we read this Shabbat during Passover, the children of Israel once again complain of the difficulties of wandering in the desert. God’s anger is roused; yet here, Moses too feels the strain of the journey. He questions his role as leader, and admits that he is not able to shoulder the burden alone. God responds:
And the Lord said to Moses, Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon you, and will put it upon them; and they shall carry the burden of the people with you, that you carry it not yourself alone (Numbers 11:16–17).
God recognizes the impossibility of Moses’ job and responds by creating an additional cadre of leadership that will help Moses shoulder this burden and stand with him in the breach. It is this partnership which makes it possible for Moses to effectively lead the people to true freedom in their own land.
In these two texts, we are presented with distinct transmissions of authority. In Exodus, Moses chooses leaders who will not manipulate their leadership for personal gain. These leaders are chosen for their personality traits, for their demeanor, and for who they are as individuals.
With our portion this week, God illustrates another method. Moses’ trait of charisma must be passed along to others to realize effective leadership. While Moses was right to select leaders to assist him in his role, God demonstrates that the characteristic that truly makes effective leadership is the one that exemplifies the spark of the Divine.
This week, The Jewish Theological Seminary announced Professor Arnold M. Eisen as our next Chancellor. Dr. Eisen’s commitment to our most fundamental ideals, Jewish identity and commitment, is expressed with a charisma that is verily Biblical. Exhibiting the “force of spirit” fundamental to Jewish leadership, Dr. Eisen has worked throughout his career to foster, as he states it, “a palpable sense of richness, fullness and meaning” in our Jewish lives. His vision will surely inspire our Movement.
At this watershed moment in our history, to echo our Haggadah, it would have been sufficient to find an individual who could have lead as Jethro recommended. With Dr. Eisen, our path ahead will be guided by a model of leadership that will ensure our collective vibrancy.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.