lessons in leadership
Perhaps the mark of Moses’ leadership is never felt so strongly as when he hands over the reigns of power. This week’s reading contains the tragic moment when God tells Moses that, after having led the Jewish people to the very edge of the land of Israel, he may see the land but will never enter it. Rather, God tells him, “When you have seen the land, you shall be gathered to your people”.
It is at this very moment, when Moses experiences his greatest disappointment, that he gives us his greatest lesson in leadership.
In fact, in handing over his authority to his successor, Moses demonstrates three qualities which are the hallmarks of any great leader:
Concern for the people above all else: Moses, who has not hesitated to disagree and even argue with God in the past, raises no objection to God’s decision to replace him. He simply has one request: “Let the Lord appoint a man over the congregation… so that the congregation will not be a sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers XXVII:116-17). On this request, the classic commentator Rashi notes: “This is the hallmark of the righteous – that when they are about to leave this world, they put aside their personal needs and become preoccupied with the needs of the community.”
Concern for the success of his successor: Moses is not just concerned about the people, but also concerned for the success of his replacement. Despite his heartfelt disappointment that he would not himself be able to lead the people into their land, he asks God to appoint a leader who “may lead the people out, and who may bring them in”. As the Midrash observes, Moses prayed that, unlike himself, the next leader would not only be permitted to begin his task by moving the Israelites out, but would also be allowed to conclude his mission by taking the people into the land of Israel. (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:16)
Generosity in handing over the reigns of power: Once told by God that his own sons were unworthy to succeed him, Moses unselfishly transfers the reigns of power to Joshua. The rabbis note that, whereas God told Moses to “lay your hand (in the singular) on Joshua”, (27:18) Moshe actually places both hands on him. (27:23) Rashi emphasizes that Moses laid his hands on Joshua “generously, in much greater measure than he was commanded.”
To this very day, the laying on of hands demonstrated by Moses, known as smikhah , is the way in which rabbinic ordination is given, and the line of Jewish authority passes from generation to generation. In the eyes of the Jewish tradition, the concept of conveying leadership through the laying on of hands is very different from simply transferring one’s authority. As the Midrash describes it: the transfer of authority is like “emptying one vessel into another”. In other words, authority is a finite value, and the more I pass on the less I have. But the laying on of hands, says the Midrash, is different; it is like “lighting one candle with another”. True leadership is not limited. Those we touch with our leadership do not detract from our influence but increase it. Indeed this may be Moses’ greatest message to leaders at every level of society. Authority may be finite, but true leadership is infinite.
In others’ words
“The debate goes on: Who shapes the face of history? – leaders or circumstances? My answer to you is: We all shape the face of history. We, the people. We, the farmers behind our plows, the teachers in our classrooms, the doctors saving lives, the scientists at our computers, the workers on the assembly lines, the builders on our scaffolds. We, the mothers blinking back tears as our sons are drafted into the army; we, the fathers who stay awake at night worried and anxious for our children’s safety. We, Jews and Arabs. We, Israelis and Jordanians. We, the people, we shape the face of history.
“And we, the leaders, hear the voices, and sense the deepest emotions and feelings of the thousands and the millions, and translate them into reality.”
Address by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the United States Congress, Washington, 26 July 1994
On a lighter note
From the bitter Jewish experiences in Tzarist Russia comes the following Jewish joke:
In the shtetls of Tsarist Russia, no visitors were feared more than the “khappas”. These were the Russian officials whose job was to capture the children of the village and drag them away to serve in the Red Army. If they were captured they would not see their family again for years, if at all. So when the khappas came to a village, all the children would run as fast as they could to escape their grasp.
In one village, when the khappas came, a bystander was surprised to see that along with all the children, an elderly man was also running away. “Hey, old man,” he called out. “Why should you be running?” The old man paused a moment to reply: “You think they don’t need generals?!”