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June 18, 2010 4:00 pm

Chukas: On the Essence of Leadership

avatar by Simon Jacobson

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Moses is Israel and Israel is Moses…. For the leader of the generation is as the entire generation, for the leader embodies them all

Rashi, Numbers 21:21

What is leadership?

We expect our leaders to be wise: to be able to discern right from wrong and make the proper decisions on issues that affect our lives. To provide us with a vision of where we stand and where we are headed, and guide us toward the realization of our goals.

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We expect our leaders to be caring and committed: to empathize with our needs and aspirations and devote themselves to their fulfillment.

We expect our leaders to be strong: calm and decisive in times of crisis, capable warriors and diplomats in the furtherance of our aims.

We expect our leaders to be individuals of high moral character and integrity, bearers of an ethical standard for young and old to emulate.

But the most important (and probably the most overlooked) function of the leader is to unite us: to knit diverse individuals into a single people and to inspire diverse–and often conflicting–wills to coalesce into a common destiny.

A Chorus in Three Versions

One of the first things we did together as a people was sing.

The nation of Israel was born on the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce)–the day that G-d “extracted a nation from the bowels of a nation,” freeing the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Seven days later, the Israelites witnessed the destruction of their former enslavers when the Red Sea split, to allow them passage and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. The Torah relates how, upon beholding the great miracle,

Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to G-d, saying:

I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted;
Horse and rider He cast in the sea.
G-d is my strength and song; He is my salvation
This is my G-d, and I shall glorify Him
The G-d of my fathers, and I shall exalt Him…

This song, known as Shirat HaYam–“Song at the Sea,”–goes on to describe the great miracles that G-d performed for His people, G-d’s promise to bring them to the Holy Land and reveal His presence among them in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, and Israel’s goal to implement G-d’s eternal sovereignty in the world. Its forty-four verses express the gist of our relationship with G-d and our mission in life, and thus occupy a most important place in the Torah and in Jewish life.

Our sages also focus on the prefatory line to the Song at the Sea, in which the Torah introduces it as a song sung by “Moses and the children of Israel.” Moses was obviously one of the “children of Israel,” so the fact that the Torah singles him out implies that Moses took a leading role in the composition and delivery of this song. Indeed, the nature of Moses’ role is a point of much discussion by our sages: the Talmud relates no fewer than three different opinions on exactly how Moses led his people in their song of praise and thanksgiving to G-d.

According to Rabbi Akiva, it was Moses who composed and sang the Shirat HaYam, while the people of Israel merely responded to each verse with the refrain “I shall sing to G-d.” Moses sang, “For He is most exalted,” and they answered, “I shall sing to G-d”; Moses sang, “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and they answered, “I shall sing to G-d”; and so on with all forty-four verses of the song. Rabbi Eliezer, however, is of the opinion that the people repeated each verse after Moses: Moses sang, “I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted,” and they repeated, “I shall sing to G-d for He is most exalted”; Moses sang “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and they repeated, “Horse and rider He cast in the sea,” and so on. A third opinion is that of Rabbi Nechemiah: according to him, Moses simply pronounced the opening words of the song, following which the people of Israel all sang the entire song together. In other words, each of them, on their own, composed the entire–and very same–forty-four verses!

Submission, Identification…

These three versions of how Moses led Israel in song express three different perspectives on unity, particularly the unity achieved when a people rally under the leadership of their leader. 

Rabbi Akiva describes an ideal in which a people completely abnegate their individuality to the collective identity embodied by the leader. Moses alone sang the nation’s gratitude to G-d, their experience of redemption, and their vision of their future as G-d’s people. The people had nothing further to say as individuals, except to affirm their unanimous assent to what Moses was expressing.

At first glance, this seems the ultimate in unity: more than two million hearts and minds yielding to a single program and vision. Rabbi Eliezer, however, argues that this is but a superficial unity–an externally imposed unity of the moment, rather than an inner, enduring unity. When people set aside their own thoughts and feelings to accept what is dictated to them by a higher authority, they are united only in word and deed; their inner selves remain different and distinct. Such a unity is inevitably short-lived: sooner or later their intrinsic differences and counter-aims will assert themselves, and fissures will appear also in their unanimous exterior.

Thus, says Rabbi Eliezer, if the people of Israel achieved true unity under the leadership of Moses at the Red Sea, then it must have happened this way: that the people of Israel repeated each verse that issued from Moses’ lips. Yes, they all submitted to the leadership of Moses and saw in him the embodiment of their collective will and goals, but they did not suffice with a “blind” affirmation of his articulation of Israel’s song. Rather, they repeated it after him, running it through the sieve of their own understanding and feelings, finding the roots for an identical declaration in their own personality and experience. Thus, the very same words assumed two million nuances of meaning, as they were absorbed by two million minds and articulated by two million mouths.

This, maintains Rabbi Eliezer, is the ultimate unity. When each repeats the verses uttered by Moses on his own, relating to them in his individual way, the singular vision of Moses has penetrated each individual’s being, uniting them both in word and in essence.

… and Unity

Rabbi Nechemiah, however, is still not satisfied. If Israel repeated these verses after Moses, argues Rabbi Nechemiah, this would imply that their song did not stem from the very deepest part of themselves. For if the people were truly one with Moses and his articulation of the quintessence of Israel, why would they need to hear their song from his lips before they could sing it themselves?

No, says Rabbi Nechemiah, the way it happened was that Moses pronounced the opening words of the song, following which each and every Jew, including “the infant at his mother’s breast and the fetus in the womb,” sang the entire song themselves. Indeed, it was Moses who achieved the unity of Israel, as evidenced by the fact that their song could not begin until he sang its opening words. Were it not for his leadership, they could not have risen above the selfishness that mars the surface of every character. Had not the people of Israel abnegated their will to his, they could not have uncovered the singular core of their souls. But once they made that commitment, once they unequivocally responded to Moses’ opening words, each independently conceived and articulated the very same experience of the historic moment in which they stood.

Each and every individual Jew, from the octogenarian sage to the unborn infant, expressed his deepest feelings and aspirations with the very same 187 words. For in Moses they had a leader in whom the soul of Israel was one.

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