Lessons in leadership

Lessons in leadership

Pinchas — Numbers 25:10-30:1

Too often leaders cling to power. Intoxicated by the privileges of their position, they become blinded to their own vulnerabilities and oblivious of their own mortality.

Even Jewish history has many such examples, some comparatively recent, of great leaders who failed to provide for their succession. Their deaths left a vacuum since they failed to designate their choice of a successor in a clear and unambiguous fashion. In some cases, chaos and strife ensued.

Such was not the case with the greatest of all Jewish leaders, Moses. In fact, one of the defining factors of his greatness was his concern that a proper successor to him be named.

It is in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, that the story of Moses’ search for an appropriate successor is narrated.

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them…so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:15-17)

Rashi draws our attention to the peculiar way in which Moses addresses the Almighty, “Source of the breath of all flesh.” Whatever can that mean? Why does not Moses address Him as “God of the heavens and earth” or some similar familiar appellation?

Rashi’s answer yields an important insight into Moses’ concept of the nature of leadership. A leader must be able to tolerate the great differences that exist among individuals. Every human being is different from every other, and a leader must be able to inspire diverse individuals, even those with contradictory ideologies and objectives. Only the Lord, “Source of the breath of all flesh,” can identify a leader with the capacity of relating to “each and every person according to his personality.”

So Moses was not only exemplary in taking the responsibility to find and name a successor, but he was also careful to ask for divine assistance in locating a leader with the capacity to deal with human uniqueness. Moses knew from his long experience that a leader who expected uniformity was doomed to failure.

But there is another aspect to leadership that Moses did not seem to ask for, but which God provided for.

God not only responds to Moses’ request by naming Joshua as his successor, he also insists that Joshua stand before and consult Elazar the priest. The effective leader — the great leader — dare not think of himself as infallible, as the only source of intelligent leadership. Rather, he must bow to a higher authority.

Hence “…he shall present himself to Elazar the priest, who shall, on his behalf, seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord. By such instruction, they shall go out, and by such instruction, they shall come in…. Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Elazar the priest….” (Numbers 27:21-22)

Joshua was to be the undisputed leader of the Jewish people. And he was chosen not just because he was a faithful disciple to his master, Moses, but because of his amazing skill in dealing with a people as diverse and as fractious as the Israelites. Yet he too was made to realize that he had limitations, that he needed to depend upon others, and that, ultimately, he had to bow before “the Source of the breath of all flesh.”

Whenever I read these key passages, I cannot help but apply their lessons to the many leaders across history who began their careers with talents equal or perhaps even superior to Joshua’s, but who ultimately failed because they tried to “go at it alone.”

In every generation — ours too — leaders arise with God-given personal gifts and great promise, but, to our disappointment, they fail dismally. Almost without exception, their failures can be traced to their attempts to be a Joshua without an Elazar, a king without a conscience, an expert without a consultant, a wise man without an Urim, a human without God.

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