Leadership In Difficult Times

by Arliene Botnick, July 1, 2024

In this most difficult time, we look to our leaders for direction, for wisdom, and for justice, although each one of us does have to be responsible for the direction in which society moves. The reality is that those who lead us have the power to make the necessary changes when society is in disarray, as it says in B. Er 41a, “the body follows the head”, and if the head is the wrong head, society will suffer. The head of society may be a President, Prime Minister, Premier, Monarch. Whoever that leader is, it is vital that he/she/they represent the values that can create a caring and productive, just society. At the moment, it seems that in many places in our world, there is a challenge in finding the ‘right’ leader. God had to wait some 400 years, as we languished in slavery in Egypt, before Moses was set on the path to lead us out of slavery. And what were the leadership qualities that Moses possessed? When an Israelite was being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, Moses did not stand idly by. Moses took action to save the life of a fellow Jew. Moses “turned this way and that” (Ex 2:12) and saw perhaps that no one else would come to save the Israelite slave from being beaten to death, so Moses acted. When Moses was wandering in the desert, and saw the bush, apparently burning up but unconsumed by flame, Moses took off his shoes and took time to understand that there was a message for him from God there. Moses accepted the responsibility of leading us out of slavery. He was a reluctant leader, and perhaps that’s an important to note, that he was not doing it for power, or for self glory, and he actually didn’t even feel capable of this leadership, as he said to God that he was slow speech and tongue, but, Moses, along with his brother, Aaron went before the Pharoah to demand freedom of our people. A good leader leads for the people, not for self aggrandisement or power. A good leader needs a sense of humility not hubris.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert, once again, leadership becomes an issue. Moses has shown that he is not the person to lead us into the promised land. He’s older; his patience is lagging, his strength is waning, and leaders have to know when it is no longer their role to lead but they have to turn power over to the younger, to the new generation. Moses had to make a choice and it was Joshua that led us into the promised land.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote in his article “What Made Joshua and Caleb Different” from the other 10 scouts sent to scout the promised land was that they said to the people that we can do this. These 2 scouts were people not averse to taking risks. The other 10 accepted the idea that they couldn’t win against the Canaanites, therefore they wouldn’t even try. According to Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck, people laden with expectations tend to be risk averse. They do not want to be seen as failures (‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck). Caleb and Joshua, with the growth mindset, did not fear failure. They “relished challenges” (Rabbi Sacks). The other 10 were reluctant. The positive mindset allowed Caleb and Joshua to see the opportunity to go into the promised land as a challenge. Leaders need a positive mindset. They need to be willing to challenge the status quo and work to better society, to make it more just, more equitable. The reluctant 10 were guilty of an “attribution error”, assuming that others felt as they did. They said, “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their eyes.” (Num13:33) But as the Kotzker Rebbe noted, they were entitled to make the first claim. Just not the second They knew how they felt themselves, but they had no idea how the people of the land felt (Rabbi Sacks article). Joshua and Caleb have faith in God and are ready to meet the challenge. And Moses has to accept the new leadership and know that it was for the best to step aside. Leaders have to have insight, courage, faith and know when to step down

In our world today, there are many challenges, untruths, inequities facing many peoples and sometimes, as with the 10 scouts, we project onto others what we are thinking, assuming we know their point of view. But that is not always the case. Many of us are overwhelmed by many of the antisemitic incidents that have been happening and without downplaying their significance, we need to realize there are our supporters out there and there are also people unfortunately who basically aren’t at all involved in what’s going. During the recent Walk for Israel, amongst the 50,000 walkers, were supporters from other faith groups, churches, Iranian supporters. It is true that the voices are those who do not support the very existence of the State of Israel are loud and raucous, but their numbers are not overwhelming. Recent polls suggest the 80% of the population is not supportive of the tent encampments and continuous rallies disrupting traffic, businesses, intimidating students, frightening many.

Leaders are responsible for the community, and even as we read that God too is obligated to the laws, so too must our leaders respect the law, enforce the law and themselves obey the law. We elect the leaders, and the challenge is often that many of those seeking leadership may not be the best, but they may be all we have from which to choose. Let us look at those whom we place in leadership positions. Let’s question where they stand on policies that affect us. Do they accept, as Moses did, a willingness to show accountability, as he did (Ex 38:21) when he presented the records of the tabernacle to prove that he was not personally benefitting from the monies raised. Do we look at those in leadership and see whether they’re doing it for their own glory or whether they’re putting the people before them as did Moses who came down from Sinai and immediately came to the people (Ex 19:14) His responsibility was to those he’d undertaken to lead. Do we expect our leaders to be with us rather than allow us to suffer while they prosper and flourish? We were told that when Israel was in deep distress and battling against Amalek, Moses has a stone put under him on which to sit and he remained steady while his hands were supported by Aaron and Hur. Moses did not think of his personal comfort. “When Israel is in distress, I must be with them.”

Our challenge today is to find the right leaders. Many of us are armchair politicians; we talk about what those in power should do, but maybe we have to start talking about what we can do. How can we work with our existing leaders? How can we become leaders ourselves? How can we make sure that “Justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a living stream” (Amos 5 :23). We are told that everything we need to know is in Torah (Rabbi Ben Bag Bag), so turn it and turn it again. All the answers are there. Let us keep studying together to find the answers. Let us not be daunted by adversity; let us not be the 10 scouts who say we can’t do it. Let’s be like Joshua and Caleb. It is not an easy task and maybe we in this generation will not complete it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a start.

I wish all of you a healthy and safe summer. Let us pray and work for a saner, safer world for all, and for peace and security for Israel. God, willing, may the hostages be returned safely to their families. May our leadership (and all of us) respect the laws to which we are obligated and make our country thrive. May peace and respect and understanding reign over us. Keyn Yehi Ratzon

Filed under: Educator's Message

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