All to often countries are faced with a crisis in leadership. With leadership being such an important issue, a look at Biblical leaders may help cope with current difficulties. The first archetypal leader of Israel who led the Jews from slavery to freedom was Moses, but a cursory look shows him to be a most unlikely candidate for the job.
At the Burning Bush, when God first commanded Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Jews to freedom, Moses demurred. He did not believe the people would listen to him. And, in fact, they did not. Moses was foreign, raised in Pharaoh’s house and spent his adulthood in Midian, distant from the children of Israel. He could not empathize with the people’s experience as slaves. And unlike any successful politician, Moses was “heavy in speech”, i.e. not a gifted public speaker.
But Moses had other qualities that made him perhaps the most gifted leader in history. Several of these qualities are notably absent in the most important leaders of state today.
- Moses cared deeply about social justice and left the palace in order to witness firsthand the suffering of the people. As a result of his consideration for others, he was willing to forfeit a life of luxury in the palace in order to stand up for the oppressed, acting on three occasions to save a victim from an aggressor. First he intervened in a clash between a Jew and a non-Jew, second between two Jews and third between two non-Jews. In all three cases, Moses championed the just cause. He did not play identity politics, express favoritism, or prejudice. His sense of justice and fair play was extended to everyone. And Moses was even willing to confront Pharaoh with this truth, championing the cause of his people.
- Douglas Adams, the well-known British humorist, once quipped: “It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” Lusting for power may drive a leader to resort to destructive means in order to stay in power. Moses, however, did not want power, arguing that he was unsuited as he was “heavy of speech.” When he did finally accept the position, his motivation was to serve God and the people. But Moses did not seek the adoration of the people. He sought what was good for the people and to serve God.
- Moses sought wisdom and guidance from other sources, realizing that the fate of the nation could not rest with one man. His years of tending flocks in Midian were the basis of his leadership qualities, but he did not rely on his wisdom and ability alone. Moses turned to his older brother, Aaron, who, unlike Moses, grew up among the Hebrews and was a slave among them while Moses was in Midian. He recognized Miriam as a prophetess and stood back as she led the women. And when Jethro, a non-Jew, suggested a reform to the system of justice, Moses immediately recognized the value of the idea and enacted it. And Moses prepared Joshua to be his successor.
- While being attentive to the wants and needs of the people, Moses never lost sight of the greater good and ultimate goal. The trek through the desert was not a democratic process. While the people complained, expressing a desire to return to the life of relative luxury in Egypt, Moses steadfastly led them forward to the Promised Land. Moses remained true to the greater guiding principles revealed at Sinai.
- The Midrash teaches us that Moses was the most humble man in the world. Moses’ humility was a true humility. He did not shy away from a great task if he knew that it must get done and he was the best man for the job. Neither did Moses attribute honor or success to himself. In a counterintuitive fashion, Moses’ greatness came from his great obedience to the higher power. This is only evident when he leaves his position:
After the death of Moshe the slave of Hashem, Hashem said to Yehoshua son of Nun, Moshe‘s attendant: Joshua 1:1:
Joshua was a great leader, leading the Children of Israel into the land. But he was not as great as Moses. Moses is described as a slave of God, while Joshua was the attendant of Moses. A slave is on a lower social standing than an attendant. But in terms of serving God, a slave is preferable. A slave is compelled to serve whereas an attendant can leave whenever he desires. A slave must carry out his owner’s wishes to the letter, whereas an attendant has some freedom in the execution of the task at hand. A slave is closer to his master and must be available to him at all hours. In this regard, Moses led the people at the behest of his master; God.