LOOKING FOR GOOD LEADERS – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – June SJN
June – the first of the summer months. As I write this a month earlier, I expect that the continuing coronavirus crisis will mean that June feels more cloudy than sunny this year, whatever the weather.
Interestingly, if we turn to the Torah, this year’s cycle sees three portions that include major wilderness rebellions featuring in June: B’ha’alot’cha, Sh’lach L’cha and Korach.
B’ha’alot’cha concludes with Miriam’s rebellion against Moses’ exclusive leadership (Numbers 12). Sh’lach L’cha opens with the leaders of the twelve tribes undertaking a reconnoitre of the land beyond the Jordan and the subsequent rebellion of ten of the tribal leaders, whose ‘evil report’ sparks major dissension in the camp (Numbers 13-15). From the very first words of the story, Korach focuses on the challenge of the first cousin of Moses and Aaron, and of Reubenites, Datan, Aviram and On, to the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16-18).
All three narratives share a single theme: discontent with the established leadership on the part of those who were leaders or would-be leaders themselves.
In recent years, alongside the major themes of the news – the financial crisis, the global refugee crisis, ecological catastrophe and climate change, Brexit, and now the coronavirus pandemic – there has been a concern with leadership, and in particular, with leadership that is perceived to be poor and inadequate to meet these complex challenges.
The past year has seen leadership contests in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Meanwhile, in Israel, the continuing leadership crisis has been played out in a succession of inconclusive general elections, and in the United States, the struggle to find a Democratic presidential candidate to challenge President Trump in the presidential election due in November has led to a safe choice that might see Trump winning a second term.
What makes a good leader? It’s hard to answer this question when there are so few examples of good leadership. Surveying the world scene, one figure stands out: The Prime Minister of a tiny nation on the edge of the world: Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. The leadership she gave when two mosques in Christchurch were attacked by a far-right extremist on 15 March 2019, revealed outstanding leadership qualities: the ability to meet challenges head-on, to communicate clearly, to connect with people, to be compassionate and caring, as well as determined and decisive. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacinda_Ardern Jacinda Ardern has displayed similar qualities in the way that she has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that, as of 1 May, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, of a total of 1,479 cases (1,132 confirmed cases and 347 probable), only 208 were active and only 19 people in all had died. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_New_Zealand
For me, Jacinda Ardern, who, incidentally, is the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and turns 40 next month (26.07), is a modern-day Miriam: with the ability to do exactly what is needed and above all, to lead with confidence and authority.
So, what about the leadership of Moses? The narratives in the Torah reveal that he was a reluctant leader, ever-ready to call on the Eternal One for assistance in a crisis, with a quick explosive temper. And if the absence of Miriam in the Torah narratives is anything to go by, there can be little doubt that Moses failed to draw on his elder sister’s leadership qualities to help him deal with the unruly people he was leading. And yet, Moses had an essential leadership quality that most leaders lack: modesty. He didn’t think he had all the answers. He was not puffed up with his own power and status. On the contrary, Moses understood that his role, above all, was to shepherd his people through the uncharted wilderness. As we continue to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, we could certainly do with more leaders like Jacinda Ardern – and wouldn’t it be marvellous if a leader emerged who had the modesty and devotion of Moses.