“Moses, the Exalted Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Political campaigns in democratic societies have become a rather sorry sight. Candidates in the U.S. announce their candidacies, sometimes as much as two or three years before the actual elections, and must raise tens of millions of dollars just to be noticed. Of course, all candidates initially pledge to run clean campaigns, but when the competition gets rough, the dirt starts flying.

The campaign trail is so arduous that most qualified candidates never even consider running for high public office. Today, with the omnipresent media, there is virtually not a single fault or faux-pas of a candidate’s past that escapes public scrutiny and analysis. Voting records, personal letters, private emails and confidential medical reports are all subject to public disclosure.

In-depth probing of candidates is not only expected; it has virtually become a form of popular national entertainment. Kindergarten teachers are contacted. Camp counselors and college roommates are interviewed. Old report cards, decades-old speeches, and graduation theses are all reviewed with a fine-tooth comb. Even old boyfriends and girlfriends are frequently tracked down and pressed to reveal embarrassing information. Candidates often hire private investigators to uncover unflattering information about their rivals.

Little of this scrutiny has much to do with a candidate’s qualifications to serve. The information disclosed is usually irrelevant to a candidate’s political positions, moral beliefs, ability to lead and make hard decisions, or one’s knowledge of domestic or foreign affairs. Added to this is the sad fact that, over the past decade, the office of the presidency itself has been largely denigrated. Many, if not most, American citizens have lost respect for the system.

It has reached a point where it seems that the only good candidate is the “default” candidate. The expression “Teflon President,” once a term of derision, is used today as a compliment, implying that finally there is someone who can suffer abuse, ridicule and embarrassment, and come out unscathed. When evaluating candidates, reference is often made to great communicators and charismatic personalities. Rarely, however, do we speak of a candidate’s depth of character or breadth of knowledge. We long for actors and performers, people who are able to mingle with the common folk. An emerging trend seems to be candidates who are people of great wealth willing to spend tens of millions of their own fortunes to get elected. Is this what democracy was intended to be?

Standing in stark contrast is Moses, the ultimate Jewish leader. As a child, he narrowly escapes death, is separated from his parents, is raised in an alien Egyptian palace, and yet develops a strong sense of Jewish identity. When he intervenes to save his fellow Jew from being beaten to death, he must flee for his life to the far-off land of Midian, where he serves as a lowly shepherd to his father-in-law, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian. Moses, raised as an Egyptian prince and banished to decades in exile, is subsequently summoned by G-d at the burning bush to return to Egypt and redeem the people of Israel from slavery.

Moses seems to have none of the qualifications that are deemed so essential for leadership in contemporary times. Will the people remember that he was once a prince in Pharaoh’s palace? Will they acknowledge that he comes from a noble family or will they only recall that his father Amram married his own aunt, Yocheved, a rather ignoble pedigree (Exodus 6:20)? How will Moses ever be able to win the sympathies of the people when they find out that he is from the tribe of Levi, the only tribe that was not subject to the actual experiences of slavery that all the other tribes endured? Can an 80-year-old leader, who testified about himself that he was not a man of words and has a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10), be an effective leader? Can a profoundly reluctant leader, who begs G-d to please send anyone else other than himself (Exodus 4:13), ever gain the confidence of the masses?

And yet, we know that Moses was exceedingly successful, beyond what could or should have been anticipated. The people he leads are stiff-necked, ungrateful, rebellious and often bitter. The enemies that he must confront are both internal and external, and his own personal family life is challenging, if not tragic.

Yet what we learn from Moses’ example is most profound. It is not his eloquence or his charisma that leads to Moses’ success, but rather his single-minded devotion to fulfill G-d’s mission–to rescue His beloved people Israel, to tend to G-d’s flock as he once tended to each little lamb in Jethro’s herd that he took out to pasture.

“If you don’t forgive them [the People of Israel],” cries Moses (Exodus 32:32), “m’chay’nee nah mee’sif’reh’chah,” erase me from your book! In a similar vein, according to some commentators, Moses purposely smashes the Tablets when he beholds the Golden Calf, so that he, too, shall be deemed sinful in G-d’s eyes, and join the fate of the sinful people of Israel.

Jewish leadership is not based upon smoke-and-mirrors, good PR, well-applied makeup or a comely face. The Jewish leader is presented warts and all. What is key, however, is thorough devotion to mission, heartfelt commitment to the people, and refusal to accept failure as an option.

In retrospect, it is probably fair to say that Jewish leadership is rarely regarded for its striking aesthetic sense, its resounding eloquence, or its lofty nobility. Yet its elegance and stature eventually emerge and become quite evident. How otherwise explain that a man of “uncircumcised lips,” offers up some of the most exalted human oratory as he crosses the sea, leading the people of Israel in inspirational song?

By the end of his life, Moses, a bruised and battered man, utters the most glorious poetry (Deuteronomy 32:1) “Hah’ah’zee’noo ha’sha’may’im vah’ah’dah’bay’rah,” Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak, and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. And as he breathes his last few mortal breaths, blessing his beloved people, he sings a song of praise to G-d (Deuteronomy 33:2) that is unparalleled in its beauty. “Ha-shem mee’See’nai bah, v’zarach mee’Say’eer lah’mo,” G-d came forth from Sinai, shining forth to them from Seir–-depicting how G-d gave His people the Torah, how profoundly He loves the tribes of Israel, and how the whole world revolves around His beloved people.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Judaism’s historic leaders and leaders of other nations is seen in Moses’ death. The greatest leader of Israel, who saw G-d virtually face-to-face, lies in an unmarked grave in the wilderness of Paran, unable to enter the promised land. Moses our Master, Moses our Teacher, has no sepulcher or monument. His foremost legacy is that he is known as a monumental man of truth, a person who, through the power of faith and love, was able to accomplish more than any other human being on the face of the earth. This is true leadership, leadership that endures.

May you be blessed.