Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama, nominee for US attorney general pledged last week at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to “say no” to President-elect Donald Trump if he tries to go beyond the law. The New York Times reported that Mr. Sessions “spoke out against torture, a ban on Muslim immigration and other ideas that had been floated by Mr. Trump… [The Senate Committee had] asked whether Mr. Sessions supported Mr. Trump’s most controversial statements and questioned whether he had the independence to rein in the strong-willed Mr. Trump if he seeks to exceed his presidential authority.”
The importance of leadership in government, business, and every facet of society cannot be overstated. The shelves of our bookstores are stacked with advice on how to become an effective leader. Everyone expects only the highest standards from our leaders. There may be times that one leader may be required to stand his ethical ground against another leader as in the case with Senator Sessions and President-elect Trump.
What are the criteria for Jewish leadership? In Parshas Shemos, God chooses Moshe Rebeinu to become the leader of Klal Yisroel. Moshe Rebeinu clearly earned his appointment as explained by the Kli Yakar (“Remove your shoes… the place you are standing is holy ground [Shemos 3:5]”) symbolizing Moshe reaching the point where his spiritual soul was in total control over his physical drives. He even argued against his appointment (“Please my Lord, I’m not a man of words… [Shemos 4:10]”). The Torah itself ultimately testifies to his greatness, “There never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe…[Devarim 43:10].”
Yet, earlier in the Parsha we see another display of leadership, before the rise of Moshe Rebeinu – that of the midwives, Shifra (Yocheved) and Puah (Miriam). Standing up to Pharaoh, they ignore his order to kill the new-born males. The Torah informs us [Shemos 1:17] that the midwives’ fear of God motivated them to be steadfast in their emunah. As the wife and daughter, respectively, of Amram, the Gadol HaDor, they learned the importance of Jewish values. Moreover, they applied their understanding to the highest level when they were mesiras nefesh in defying Pharaoh thereby transforming themselves into Jewish leaders.
One might wonder is leadership reserved for the select few?
Rabbi Yaakov Solomon writes the opposite is true:
Leadership, me? I am not a leader. Period. I’m a follower … and a good one, at that. I’m quiet, unassuming, timid, cautious, and decidedly unadventurous. I avoid the limelight and disdain any kind of attention. I dislike parties. I have the personality of a stapler. Heck, I don’t even vote. In short, I just mind my own business.
“Sound like you? Well, I have some important news for you. YOU’RE WRONG! Sorry for yelling, but I’m trying to make sure I get my message through to you. Oh, you may indeed be quiet, timid, and restrained. I don’t doubt that. You may even hide when the mailman comes. But, believe it or not, that doesn’t mean you are not a leader. You probably think leadership is genetic and if your last name isn’t Bonaparte or Giuliani you just don’t have what it takes. But the good news is that you need not be related to Moses or Queen Esther to qualify. You can just be … well … yourself. Yes, with all your insecurities, imperfections, anxieties, and stapler personality. You are still not ineligible.
“One of the only traits that is essential to great leadership is compassion. All truly great leaders throughout history felt a compelling desire to better the lives of others: globally, communally, or personally. And that desire was an expression of the sense of compassion that resonated within them, no matter where life’s circumstances took them or how turbulent the storms they weathered seemed to be …”
Rabbi Meir Zvi Bergman in his sefer Shaare Ora questions whether stature is a function of yichus, pedigree. Rabbi Bergman proves that although Moshe Rebeinu was the son of the Gadol HaDor Amram, his leadership was fully earned through his own merits, which is in fact the model for every Jew. Rabbi Bergman cites the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:2), “that every person can be a tzadik like Moshe Rebeinu” to inform us that ultimately who we become is solely dependent upon our own actions.
There are two NLE Morasha shiurim on Jewish leadership:
Click here for Jewish Leadership I: What is Jewish Leadership and What Characterizes a Leader?
Click here for Jewish Leadership II: More Leadership Qualities, Practical Skills, and Becoming a Leader