Moses and Lessons for the US Presidential Election
As we enter 2016, our attention is constantly distracted by the US presidential elections that are eleven months away. In most countries, election campaigns last a few weeks, or at most a couple of months. Here in the US, the campaign has been ongoing for several months, and with each passing week it gets more intense and more dominant as a news item. It is hard to believe that the election itself is still almost a year away, although I guess it gives us all a decent amount of time to reflect on who will make a good leader for the world’s only superpower.
The Jewish paradigm of leadership is Moses, to whom we are introduced for the first time in this week’s Torah portion. He epitomizes the qualities of leadership required to galvanize a demoralized group of people and shape them up into a proud nation, while at the same time negotiating for their freedom with the despotic ruler who has enslaved them. But even before he sets out on his mission to take on the mantle of leadership, we get a glimpse into his personality at the episode when he encounters God in the Burning Bush. The incident is both enchanting and mystifying, full of symbolism and details that require explanation and clarification. Some aspects of this encounter have polarized rabbinic opinion, and it is one of these disputes that I would like to share with you.
There’s that old joke about two people who visit the rabbi to arbitrate a dispute. The rabbi hears the first litigant out, and when he’s finished tells him “you’re right!” Then he listens to the second litigant, and after he is done the rabbi says, “you’re right too!” A third person who has been listening to the proceedings is utterly perplexed. “How can they both be right?” he asks, “either one of them is correct, or the other one is — they cannot both be right!” The rabbi turns to him, smiles, and says: “do you know what — you’re also right!”
A commentary I saw by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook on the episode of Moses’ first encounter with God that reminded me of this joke. When Moses spotted the Burning Bush he was apparently so overawed that he covered up his face so that he would not have to see it: “Moses hid his face as he was afraid to look directly at God” (Exodus 3:6). The Talmud in Berahot records a debate between two rabbis who argue whether or not this was appropriate. Rabbi Joshua ben Korha suggests that the reason Moses was later prevented from seeing God ‘directly’ was because when he had the opportunity to do so he chose not to. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yohanan praises Moses’ reluctance to gaze at God, and declares that Moses was rewarded for this humility.
So which is it? Is Rabbi Joshua right, or is Rabbi Yohanan right? Rabbi Kook argues that each rabbi represents a different view of how best to get close to God? The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides writes that the perfect relationship is achieved by engaging with God as much as possible and at every opportunity. If we do not grab any opportunity we get we will end up drifting from God’s presence and will later find it more difficult to achieve the fullest possible relationship. This seems to be in line with the opinion of Rabbi Joshua. When Moses hid his face at the Burning Bush he lost his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that ‘facetime’ experience with God.
The author of Hovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Rabbeinu Bahya Ibn Paquda, has a totally different take. According to him we get closest to God by perfecting our character and moral behavior. Brazenness may get us places, even spiritual places, but as it is so detrimental to our core morality we must avoid it. This view seems to concur with the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan, who praises Moses’ humility and says he was rewarded for it. Moses surely wanted to encounter God face-to-face, but when the opportunity arose he held himself back, preferring to exercise restraint and modesty in an ultimate act of spiritual self-sacrifice. What Moses gained from this act far outweighed any benefit that might have resulted from gazing at the Burning Bush.
The upshot is that two opposing views can coexist, and both be right, even when they contradict each other. Moses was a great leader precisely because he sacrificed his chance to see God, which harmed him, but which also enabled him to remain the incredible person that he was — the superlative prophet with a direct line to God who remained in touch with his people, and with reality, never allowing his status to obscure the fact that he was an ordinary, fallible human being.
As 2016 unfolds, this might be a message worth remembering. Leadership is not just about charisma, or talent, or intellect, or experience. It is about all of those things, but only as long as they are carefully calibrated with humanity, humility, modesty, and unpretentiousness. How many among those who have fielded themselves as potential leaders for the United States can combine their superior leadership qualities with the self-effacement that should underline everything they do and say? All we need is one.