2. What Matters is the Goal
It would seem obvious that among the first prerequisites for accepting the mantle of leadership - beyond the dictates of the prevailing circumstances - would be the individual’s inner necessity to feel adequate to the task, worthy of the position, be prepared to accept the role - and recognize that he or she has been chosen for it. Yet as we glimpse into our Biblical past, we discern that our most illustrious and noble leaders were notorious for questioning their own eligibility and ability for the responsibilities intended for them. They may have been reluctant to accept the mantle of leadership for various reasons - or even felt unequipped to fulfill the assigned tasks. Take a second look:
Moses at the Burning Bush:
Who am I to go to Pharaoh….?
- Why did Moses try to draw back from the Divine call to lead?
- What other leaders were also reluctant and why?
- Did they feel unable?
- Did they prefer not to seek status?
- Or did they intuitively perceive that the power inherent in leadership harbors the seeds of corruption?
We can recap as follows:
Moses realized his background growing up in the Egyptian court was a problem; he was under sentence of death from Pharaoh; he knew his people did not accept him; he had a speech impediment which he mentions… Moses knew he was an intelligent, well-educated, and capable man; but he was overwhelmed at the enormity of the responsibility that G-d – suddenly revealing Himself to him for the first time – was now placing upon him – to lead His People out of Egypt.
Jeremiah recounts his reason:
Oh Lord, G-d, I will not be able to speak, for I am a youth.
Saul, marked by the Prophet Samuel's lotteries as the first King of Israel:
They sought him, but he could not be found…. And G-d said, Behold he has hidden himself among the possessions.
I Samuel 10: 21-22
Saul's reluctance is not expressed verbally, but the narrative precedes this choice with a prior encounter with Samuel, and acting upon the word of G-d, who promises Samuel that Saul will defeat the Philistines, judge the People, and is to be annointed.
To return to Moses, and an often used source text:
And the man Moses was exceedingly humble…
This text is from the period of wanderings in the Sinai Desert; it is not at all related to Moses being chosen to lead the People, but to Miriam and Aharon's jealousy of him and their criticism in relation to his wife, Zipporah – and the Midrash says it was criticism of Moses for leaving her.
Furthermore, the word 'humble' is often interpreted as modesty - whereas its true semantic field is: self-knowing honesty, integrity, unpretentiousness.
Thus, while we may use the same terms today, we are in fact addressing different conceptual worlds; nonetheless, our different perceptions are revealing in terms of the goals and the calling of Biblical leadership:
Martin Buber, in a chapter on Biblical leaders, indeed characterized them as humble, but also felt they were weak from the modern-day perspective.
Benjamin Kahn, in a keynote essay, noted that the Prophets possessed neither organizing skills, nor powers of practical leadership. Truly, ancient Jewish leaders would have failed today’s management courses – yet they persevered.
They did not act as though they knew that the fastest way to lose a friend is to tell him what you really think of him… Not only were they unpopular, they were masters of unpopularity.
They became leaders because of their gift of Prophecy and their acceptance of Divine responsibility to use that gift: they had a sense of mission as spiritual leaders (out of integrity), but would go beyond that when the situation demanded.
For Buber, however, leadership in its pristine state did not depend on the immediate success or failure of the leader’s mission. The Biblical leader, in his eyes, did not hold power and authority in the contemporary sense, since it was essentially the Divine ideas that he or she represented which possessed the intrinsic power and authority.
In this approach, the thesis presented is that success or failure are not relevant. What matters is the goal and motive, meaning the conviction that the Prophet is fulfilling G-d’s purpose and this will ultimately win out.
From an historical perspective, we have indeed witnessed the internalization of these ancient ideas and values into the thought patterns of Jewish culture and the major, extant philosophical systems to this day.
Naturally, not every leader in Jewish history meets Buber’s criterion of Biblical leadership; not every leader was chosen on High. So it was, in anticipation of leaders being chosen by the people, that our Sages had reason enough to be sceptical about the qualifications on which a claim for leadership could be based...