Reading the dramatic Torah portion this past Shabbat morning of Moses shattering the Ten Commandments on his descent from Mt. Sinai, and reflecting on the Washington love-in this week between Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, I kept thinking about what it takes to be a leader — of a rebellious flock in biblical times or of polarized societies today.
Let’s start with the present.
Images of Netanyahu and Trump reinforcing their bonds of political and personal alliance — mutually beneficial for them — caused some Jews here and in Israel to kvell with pride and others to cringe with embarrassment.
The two men have much in common. They are perceived by fans as possessing strength and, in the face of criticism and adversity, a sense of deep conviction. Others, though, would like to see them convicted. The critics charge that both leaders are weakening their respective democracies through constant attacks on various government agencies and the media (“fake news”) while committing offenses that may well be illegal, resulting in a level of disorder and frustration at the top that permeates their respective societies.
“Our problem is we don’t have another leader,” a 60-year-old produce merchant at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv told our contributing editor Joshua Mitnick the other day. (The quote became the headline of Josh’s report on Page 1 last week.) The merchant was explaining why he prefers to see Netanyahu remain in power despite the number of allegations of bribery and corruption piling up against him, threatening his hold on power.
According to polls, a majority of Israelis feel Netanyahu’s craftsmanship in foreign affairs — his ability to keep the horrific Syrian war next door at bay and to foster a warm relationship with Trump that has helped produce tangible results (recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, relocating the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv and blaming the Palestinians for the lack of peace progress) — outweigh the prime minister’s domestic problems, even though many believe the prime minister is guilty of the charges.
Israelis have grown cynical about their political leaders, with good reason. President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did time for corruption five years later and Aryeh Deri, a Shas leader and cabinet minister jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust, has managed, with minimal outcry, to make his way back as cabinet minister and Shas leader today.
Closer to home, daily evidence of Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House, from his dizzying pace in changing positions on issues from immigration to gun control, to sniping at his most loyal cabinet members, continues to erode confidence among the majority of Americans who believe he is unfit for the job.
Responding to official investigations, both Trump and Netanyahu have lashed out in ways that seek to marginalize, if not demonize, governmental pillars of their democracies. The result is to further divide their already polarized countries by playing almost exclusively to their base of supporters and limit debate by suggesting that facts are subjective.
What lessons can we learn from Moses, the greatest leader in Jewish history, who took a downtrodden collection of slaves out of Egypt, protected them from surrounding enemies in the desert for 40 years and helped shape them into a nation as he led them to the edge of the Promised Land?
Of course, it helped his credibility to have God as his champion. But the qualities that, presumably, made God choose Moses in the first place as the vehicle for this collective transformation included several traits that Netanyahu and Trump are sorely lacking.
One is a fierce love of his people; all of his people. Even though they drove him crazy at times, Moses was passionate in their defense — to the point of refusing God’s offer (in this past week’s Torah reading) to make Moses the leader of a new people and wipe out the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf.
If You won’t forgive the Israelites, Moses says to God, “blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written,” referring to the Torah.
From an early age, Moses had a passion for justice and a willingness to act, slaying an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Jewish slave and protecting seven sisters at the well in Midian from a group of hostile attackers. (He didn’t claim he had bone spurs to avoid the struggles.)
In addition, Moses had the ability to listen to the advice of others, as when his father-in-law, Yitro, taught him to delegate, appointing judges to settle the people’s disputes. He took great care not to abuse his powers and swore to the rebellious Korach that he took no gifts or favors from others. (No cigars or cases of champagne for Moses.)
And perhaps above all, despite his unique relationship with God and leadership of the Jewish people, he possessed humility. In fact, the Torah describes him as “more humble than anyone on the face of the earth” (Numbers, 12:3). (Are you listening, Bibi and Donald?)
Moses was not an orator; he stuttered. But he had the qualities of authenticity and sincerity that made his words and actions hold up.
“Moses was a visionary leader,” my late friend Michael Hammer wrote in his pioneering best-seller on management, “Re-engineering The Corporation.” “He persuaded the children of Israel that they should go forward toward a land of milk and honey when all they could see around them was sand. One man couldn’t force a whole people to set off into the desert; he had to inspire them with his vision. He also set a personal example,” Michael wrote, noting that at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, it was Moses who led the Israelites into the waters, which soon parted as they marched to freedom.
We’re not asking Netanyahu or Trump to take such dramatic steps, but it would be helpful if they had the courage to dip their toes into collaborative conversation with those who hold other views.
At a time of troubling questions in America and Israel about the erosion of moral governance, we are reminded that authentic leadership, which goes deeper than merely having the votes and the power, is critical to lasting success. True leaders should be committed to working for and bringing together all the people, not just those who favor them. Those they serve would do well to demand such commitment rather than make excuses for perceived deep flaws.
In brief, don’t settle for less.