Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Leaders Must Be Honest, Above All to Themselves

March 12, 2014 12:24 pm 0 comments

Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The great leaders know their own limits. They do not try to do it all themselves. They build teams. They create space for people who are strong where they are weak. They understand the importance of checks and balances and the separation of powers. They surround themselves with people who are different from them. They understand the danger of concentrating all power in a single individual. But learning your limits, knowing there are things you cannot do – even things you cannot be – can be a painful experience. Sometimes it involved an emotional crisis.

The Torah contains four fascinating accounts of such moments. What links them is not words but music. From quite early on in Jewish history, the Torah was sung, not just read. Moses at the end of his life calls the Torah a song. Different traditions grew up in Israel and Babylon, and from around the tenth century onward the chant began to be systematized in the form of the musical notations known as taamei ha-mikra, cantillation signs, devised by the Tiberian Masoretes (guardians of Judaism’s sacred texts). One very rare note, known as a shalshelet (“chain”), appears in the Torah four times only. Each time it is a sign of existential crisis. Three instances are in Bereishit. The fourth is in our parsha. As we will see, the fourth is about leadership. In a broad sense, the other three are as well.

The first instance occurs in the story of Lot. Lot had separated from his uncle Abraham and settled in Sodom. There he had assimilated into the local population. His daughters had married local men. He himself sat in the city gate, a sign that he had been made a judge. Then two visitors came to tell him to leave. God was about to destroy the city. Yet Lot hesitates, and above the word for “hesitates” – vayitmahmah – is a shalshelet. (Genesis 19: 16). He is torn, conflicted. He senses that the visitors are right. The city is indeed about to be destroyed. But he has invested his whole future in the new identity he has been carving out for himself and his daughters. Had the angels not seized him and taken him to safety he would have delayed until it was too late.

The second occurs when Abraham asks his servant – traditionally identified as Eliezer – to find a wife for Isaac, his son. The commentators suggest that Eliezer felt a profound ambivalence about his mission. Were Isaac not to marry and have children, Abraham’s estate would eventually pass to Eliezer or his descendants. Abraham had already said so before Isaac was born: “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15: 2). If Eliezer succeeded in his mission, bringing back a wife for Isaac, and if the couple had children, then his chances of one day acquiring Abraham’s wealth would disappear completely. Two instincts warred within him: loyalty to Abraham and personal ambition. Loyalty won, but not without a deep struggle. Hence the shalshelet (Genesis 24: 12).

The third brings us to Egypt and the life of Joseph. Sold by his brothers as a slave, he is now working in the house of an eminent Egyptian, Potiphar. Left alone in the house with his master’s wife, he finds himself the object of her desire. He is handsome. She wants him to sleep with her. He refuses. To do such a thing, he says, would be to betray his master, her husband. It would be a sin against God. Yet over “he refused” is a shalshelet, (Genesis 39: 8) indicating – as some rabbinic sources and mediaeval commentaries suggest – that he did so at the cost of considerable effort.

He nearly succumbed. This was more than the usual conflict between sin and temptation. It was a conflict of identity. Recall that Joseph was now living in, for him, a new and strange land. His brothers had rejected him. They had made it clear that they did not want him as part of their family. Why then should he not, in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do? Why not yield to his master’s wife if that is what she wanted? The question for Joseph was not just, “Is this right?” but also, “Am I an Egyptian or a Jew?”

All three episodes are about inner conflict, and all three are about identity. There are times when each of us has to decide, not just “What shall I do?” but “What kind of person shall I be?” That is particularly fateful in the case of a leader, which brings us to episode four, this time about Moses.

After the sin of the golden calf, Moses had at God’s command instructed the Israelites to build a sanctuary that would be, in effect, a permanent symbolic home of God in the midst of the people. By now the work is complete and all that remains is for Moses to induct his brother Aaron and his sons into office. He robes Aaron with the special garments of the high priest, anoints him with oil, and performs the various sacrifices appropriate to the occasion. Over the word vayishchat, “and he slaughtered [the sacrificial ram]” (Leviticus 8: 23) there is a shalshelet. By now we know that this means there was an internal struggle in Moses’ mind. But what was it? There is not the slightest sign in the text that suggests that he was undergoing a crisis.

Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear what Moses’ inner turmoil was about. Until now, he had led the Jewish people. Aaron his older brother had assisted him, accompanying him on his missions to Pharaoh, acting as his spokesman, aide, and second-in-command. Now, however, Aaron was about to undertake a new leadership role in his own right. No longer would he be a shadow of Moses. He would do what Moses himself could not. He would preside over the daily offerings in the tabernacle. He would mediate the avodah, the Israelites’ sacred service to God. Once a year on Yom Kippur he would perform the service that would secure atonement for the people from its sins. No longer in Moses’ shadow, Aaron was about to become the one kind of leader Moses was not destined to be: a High Priest.

The Talmud adds a further dimension to the poignancy of the moment. At the burning bush, Moses had repeatedly resisted God’s call to lead the people. Eventually God told him that Aaron would go with him, helping him speak (Ex. 4: 14-16). The Talmud says that at that moment, Moses lost the chance to be a priest. “Originally [said God] I had intended that you would be the priest and Aaron your brother would be a Levite. Now he will be the priest and you will be a Levite.”

That is Moses’ inner struggle, conveyed by the shalshelet. He is about to induct his brother into an office he himself will never hold. Things might have been otherwise – but life is not lived in the world of “might have been.” He surely feels joy for his brother, but he cannot altogether avoid a sense of loss. Perhaps he already senses what he will later discover, that though he was the prophet and liberator, Aaron will have a privilege Moses will be denied, namely, seeing his children and their descendants inherit his role. The son of a priest is a priest. The son of a prophet is rarely a prophet.

What all four stories tell us is that there comes a time for each of us when we must make an ultimate decision as to who we are. It is a moment of existential truth. Lot is a Hebrew, not a citizen of Sodom. Eliezer is Abraham’s servant, not his heir. Joseph is Jacob’s son, not an Egyptian of easy-going morals. Moses is a prophet, not a priest. To say Yes to who we are, we have to have the courage to say No to who we are not. There is pain and conflict involved. That is the meaning of the shalshelet. But we emerge less conflicted than we were before.

This applies especially to leaders, which is why the case of Moses in our parsha is so important. There were things Moses was not destined to do. He would not become a priest. That task fell to Aaron. He would not lead the people across the Jordan. That was Joshua’s role. Moses had to accept both facts with good grace if he was to be honest with himself. And great leaders must be honest with themselves if they are to be honest with those they lead.

A leader should never try to be all things to all men (and women). A leader should be content to be what he or she is. A leader must have the strength to know what he cannot be if he is to have the courage to be himself.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot engages in fierce action sequences in the new Wonder Woman trailer, which Warner Bros. premiered during the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The nearly 3-minute trailer, the first to debut for the superhero film, shows scenes of Diana, princess of the Amazons, fighting alongside men in the battle against the world’s toughest enemies. The first shot of the video shows Wonder Woman discovering a man, Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine), washed ashore. The clip then takes viewers to the all-female island where Wonder Woman was born. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Says Playing Muslim Character in ‘Tyrant’ Has Made Her More ‘Hopeful, Humble’

    Israeli Actress Says Playing Muslim Character in ‘Tyrant’ Has Made Her More ‘Hopeful, Humble’

    Israeli actress Moran Atias said that playing a Muslim woman in the hit FX series Tyrant has changed her outlook. “Educating myself about a different culture has made me more hopeful and humble, that we’re all the same,” the Jewish actress, 35, said during an interview with AOL Build. Atias plays Leila Al-Fayeed, the strong and politically minded wife of the president of Abbudin, a fictional Middle Eastern country run by a dictatorial family. The Israeli-born former model, who earned the title of Miss Globe International […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Jewish Fashionistas From Around the World to Tour ‘Chic Side of Israel’

    Jewish Fashionistas From Around the World to Tour ‘Chic Side of Israel’

    A delegation of 35 Jewish fashion industry mavens from around the world will travel to Israel later this month to “discover the chic side” of the country, 5 Town Jewish Times reported. The eight-day tour, organized by the Maryland-based Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, will include visits to key fashion sites and meetings with some of the country’s top fashion designers, merchandisers and marketers. Participants will also attend a JWRP Fashion Week event in Tel Aviv. JWRP said the trip is […]

    Read more →