To say that there’s been rather a lot in the news lately about leadership is a huge understatement. In just three weeks, in the wake of the third horrific terrorist attack in as many months on 3rd June, the General Election on the 8th, the devastating conflagration that destroyed Grenfell Tower block and claimed the lives of at least 79 people on the 14th, and the terror assault against worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque just last Monday night, Theresa May no longer looks the ‘strong and stable’ leader of her election campaign mantra, even to Tory party supporters, while radical Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has become the people’s hero of the hour way beyond left-wing circles.
So, what makes a ‘good’ leader? When I asked myself this question, I came up with rather a long list of qualities. Yes, strength and stability – and also: flexibility, initiative, good judgement, including the ability to prioritise, understanding, courage, tenacity, endurance, dynamism, resourcefulness, decisiveness, integrity, vision, inspiration, empathy, compassion, humility, the capacity to forge and maintain relationships, the ability to enable others and act as a role model. It’s a rather long list – and I’m sure there are other leadership qualities that I may have missed. No doubt, some of them seem to contest with one another. Is it possible, for example, for a leader to be stable and flexible? Yes, because providing stability is the overall frame within which a good leader operates, while flexibility is an essential reflex in response to the ever-changing realities of life. Stability may also seem at odds with dynamism. But, while stability is needed in order to weather the turbulence of unpredictable events, dynamism is required in order to avoid complacency and the coagulation of a rigid status quo. Quite possibly, it is completely unrealistic to expect all of these attributes to coalesce together in every ‘good’ leader. Perhaps, only a truly great leader would demonstrate all of them – and the truth is, it’s impossible to think of anyone past or present, however ‘great’, who did not lack some important leadership qualities. A great leader is, after all, also simply a flawed human being, like the rest of us, with a complex mix of character traits.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, the issue of leadership takes centre stage, as certain individuals with leadership pretensions challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron. Significantly, the eldest of the three sibling leaders of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, Miriam, whose own challenge to the leadership of Moses, in particular, was the theme of the closing part of the Torah portion of two weeks ago, is completely absent from the story. So, the leadership battle that ensues is a contest between men, instigated by Korach, the first cousin of the sibling leaders, whose Levite family of K’hat, as we learn in the first portion of the Book of Numbers, having been given the responsibility of carrying the most sacred vessels of the Tabernacle, were not allowed to touch them. Only their priestly cousins were permitted to do that.
Of course, the crucial difference between the contest instigated by Korach together with his fellow rebels of the tribe of first-born Reuben, who were aggrieved by their displacement by the tribe of Levi, and the leadership contests that we are familiar with today, is that the biblical model of leadership is completely undemocratic. The authority of the three sibling leaders rested on their divine appointment. Perhaps, Korach may have won the election if the leadership contest had been put to a public vote. But then again, perhaps not. Consumed with resentment, the only leadership quality Korach displayed was the ability to whip up the resentment of others. So, what of Moses and Aaron? The narrative relates that aware of the danger of the moment and yet certain of the authority invested in him by the Eternal, Moses displayed courage and decisiveness, and without hesitation met the rebels’ confrontation with his own challenge. To give you a flavour of Moses’ response, here are two verses from his eight-verse invective (Numbers 16:6-7):
This do: take your censers, Korach, and his company; / and put fire in them, incense before the Eternal tomorrow; and it shall be that the man whom the Eternal chooses, he shall be holy; you take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi.
Interestingly although Korach’s grievance was motivated by his resentment concerning Aaron’s monopoly of the priesthood, Aaron’s role in the incident was confined to following the instructions of Moses, who in turn was instructed by God. The parashah then concludes at Numbers 18 by reiterating the priestly responsibilities of Aaron and his sons. Strictly speaking, Aaron was less a leader and more a functionary. And yet, Aaron did have his leadership moment. It was during the time that Moses was on Mount Sinai communing with the Eternal for forty days and forty nights. As we read in the Book of Exodus in parashat Ki Tissa, Aaron had been left with the responsibility of managing the people on his own – again, no mention of Miriam – and they were threatening to become unmanageable. We read at Exodus chapter 32 (1-5):
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together against Aaron, and said to him: ‘Get up, make us a god who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.’ / Then Aaron said to them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’ / And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. / And he took from their hand, and fashioned [the gold] with the engraving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ / And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron proclaimed, and said: ‘tomorrow shall be a feast to the Eternal .’
What do we make of Aaron’s leadership in this incident? It seems that the high priest, whose sole function it was to preside over the sacred sacrificial ritual of the sanctuary became a skilled trouble-shooter. But while he managed to redirect the people’s energies away from rebellion, didn’t Aaron also compromise his integrity? He was certainly responsible for provoking Moses to lose his equilibrium, as in an instant at the sight of the people dancing around the molten calf, Moses smashed the two tablets of the covenant in his fury. From the time, he slew the taskmaster, who was beating an Israelite slave through the wilderness wandering years, an impulsive temper always threatened to be Moses’ undoing.
So, what of Miriam, who is entirely absent from the narrative? With just 29 verses in all telling the story of Miriam in the Torah, it may seem difficult to assess her leadership qualities. And yet the few occasions when she does appear all seem to centre on her abilities as a leader. In the first narrative, where she is the unnamed sister of the baby Moses, it was Miriam’s initiative in standing guard when Moses’ mother placed him in the basket amongst the reeds of the river, that ensured that she was on hand to approach Pharaoh’s daughter, when the Princess discovered the basket. Further, the big sister’s initiative combined with chutzpah, courage and resourcefulness, when she offered to find a wet nurse for the baby – and then brought along the baby’s mother. In the second narrative, it takes just two verses to tell us that Miriam, now named, was a prophet – n’vi’ah – and to describe how singing a song of triumph, she inspired the women to dance with timbrels through the divided Sea of Reeds.
The longest narrative concerning Miriam – 16 verses – related in parashat B’ha’a lot’cha, which we read two weeks ago, focuses on how Miriam, and to a lesser extent, Aaron challenged Moses’ authority. The passage provides an occasion for describing Moses’ exceptional relationship with God and his special qualities of humility, but it also tells us so much about Miriam. Again, there is her initiative – and also her courage. The story begins: Va-t’dabbeir Miryam v’Aharon b’Moshe: Va-t’dabbeir – feminine; ‘Then Miriam spoke – and Aaron, against Moses’. Even more telling is how the story ends. When Miriam alone was punished – with a dose of leprosy – and excluded from the camp for seven days, the people’s regard for her is made abundantly clear. We read: ‘The people did not journey on until Miriam was brought in again’.
Finally, when after a lacuna of thirty-eight years in the narrative, the Torah relates Miriam’s death in the first month and fortieth year, her importance to the people is made powerfully apparent in what happened next. The text goes on: ‘Then there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. It is this conjunction of Miriam’s death with the people’s unrest for lack of water that gave rise to the rabbinic legend of Miriam’s Well, which accompanied the Israelites throughout their journeys in the wilderness and dried up when she died.
Repeatedly, both Moses and Aaron struggled to deal with the people’s complaints and distress. Arguably, the most important quality required of a good leader and a key test of their leadership is their ability to bring people along with them. On the basis of the scant – but nevertheless, pertinent – information about Miriam in the Torah, it appears that she may have been the most able of the three sibling leaders in this regard. Perhaps, Theresa May might not have lost her credibility and the respect of so many people in the past few weeks had she behaved more like Miriam, combining initiative, inspiration, resourcefulness, decisiveness and courage with a talent for engaging with people.
Nowadays, politics seems more and more like a series of ‘tales of the unexpected.’ So, just as Prime Minister Teresa May seems to have failed crucial leadership tests recently, Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to have risen more successfully to the challenge. Let us hope that over the months to come, whatever the circumstances and twists and turns of events, those who are our elected representatives prove themselves able to provide the leadership that is needed. And with the complex Brexit process day by day moving closer to the end of March 2019 deadline, let us also hope that those at the helm of political life, work out a new model of cooperative leadership, combining their differing leadership talents to address the tasks that lie ahead. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
24th June 2017 / 30th Sivan 5777
- B’ha’a lot’cha, Numbers 12. ↑
- B’midbar, Numbers 4:15-18. ↑
- B’midbar, Num. 3:44-51. Parashat Korach opens by mentioning the names of all the rebels, supplying their lineage: ‘Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levi’; ’Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eli’av, and On, the son of Pelet, the sons of Reuben’ (Num. 16:1). ↑
- T‘rumah, Exodus 24:18. Ki Tissa, Ex. 32:1 ff. ↑
- Ex. 32:19. ↑
- Sh’mot, Ex. 2:11-12. ↑
- In the end, it was Moses’ rage at the people, following Miriam’s death, when he failed to affirm the Eternal in their presence that precipitated the Eternal to declare that he and Aaron would not bring ‘the assembly’ into the land beyond the Jordan (Chukkat, Numbers 20:12). How Moses and Aaron demonstrated their lack of faith and failed to sanctify the Eternal is not made clear. The rationalist Spanish mediaeval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, argued that it was because Moses struck the rock twice, when told by the Eternal to ‘speak’ to the rock in order to bring out water (Num. 20:8) – on the basis that the only way to ‘speak’ to a rock is to strike it, so once would have been okay. ↑
- In addition to the 29 verses in the Torah that constitute the story of Miriam, there’s a reference to her in the context of an injunction concerning the plague of ‘leprosy’ (Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:8-9), and a chronology that lists the three children of Amram and Yocheved, where she is mentioned last (Numbers 26:58-59). ↑
- Sh’mot, Exodus 2:4-8). ↑
- B’shallach, Ex. 15:20-21. ↑
- B’ha’a lot’cha, Numbers 12:3; 6-8. ↑
- Ibid., 12:15b. ↑
- Chukkat, Num. 20:1. ↑
- Ibid., 20:2. ↑
- See, for example, the Talmud, tractate, Ta’anit, which deals with ‘fasts’, which were frequently related to drought: ‘Israel had a well in the desert in Miriam’s merit’ (Ta’anit 9a). ↑