“Talk to strangers, when the family fails and friends lead you astray,
When Buddha laughs and Jesus weeps and it turns out God is gay,
‘Cause Angels’ and Messiahs’ love can come in many forms,
In the hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm.” — Saul Williams, “Talk to Strangers”
The Forward has published its fifth annual salary survey of leaders of American Jewish non-profit organizations. This is sure to trigger welcome and robust communal discussion about what makes for appropriate executive pay in these organizations and about the shameful, persistent gender gap in leadership and in salary. This attention to leadership, along with the general, communal, soul-searching going on post-Pew report, invite us to take a step back and ask a broader, structural question about what we should be seeking in leaders and how we should go about seeking and nurturing them. What are we talking about when we talk about leadership?
This week, Jewish communities open the book of Exodus, and with it, the story of the making of our paradigmatic leader, Moses. The Torah’s sparse narrative of Moses’s pre-leadership life highlights four characteristics that set the stage for his appointment as leader: a strong moral compass, intellectual curiosity, readiness to change direction radically based on new knowledge, and personal disinterest in being in spotlight. (My teacher, Rabbi David Bigman, has discussed these first two characteristics in his book, The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading, Geffen, 2011, in the essay on Parashat Shemot.)
We see the moral compass in the lone story of Moses’s life in Egypt, when he kills an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11-12). Moses, an Egyptian aristocrat, sees an Egyptian persecuting a Hebrew and acts swiftly to protect the vulnerable from the oppression of the strong. The next day, he tries to break up a fight between two Hebrews, proving that his motivating drive is prevention of abuse, not parochial loyalty to the Hebrews irrespective of context. A sine qua non of leadership is a commitment to fairness with an allergy to abuse. (Rabbi Shai Held recently discussed this quality of Moses’s elegantly, as well.)
Intellectual curiosity emerges a bit later. Fugitive Moses is tending his sheep, when an unusual thing catches his eye: “He gazed, and there was a bush, all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’” (ibid., 3:2-3). Although the reader already knows that this is a sign from God (v. 1), Moses does not. He just thinks it’s interesting. We see unusual things all the time, but how often do we pay attention to them? More often, we ignore them, explain them away, or feel too busy tending our sheep to investigate. Had Moses not been driven by a need to understand, he never would have had the chance to hear God’s voice. Note the language: “When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him” (v. 4). It is Moses’s expression of intellectual curiosity that justifies calling him and giving him the job. Strategizing within the well-defined parameters of the task at hand does not cut it: one must be constantly studying the entire world; after all, the source for solving the greatest national problems might lie in an unusual, small bush.
Morality and curiosity are necessary, but insufficient. Leadership is readiness to accept the consequences of that curiosity, to understand that the datum which until now was merely interesting actually demands a paradigm shift, that the potential power of knowledge is no less than life transformation. “When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses, Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am’” (ibid.). Curiosity is a radical life orientation; if we’re truly open to learning new things, from any source, our lives will at some point change in unexpected ways.
Finally, Moses eschews leadership. He wants to act on his sense of justice only anonymously. He strikes the Egyptian when he sees that no one is looking. When he learns that people know about it, he flees. When God spells out the awesome task of leading his people out of slavery, he balks five times (cap. 3), suggesting that this balking is another quality the Torah seeks in a leader. While our halakhic codes castigate one who has the ability to issue legal rulings yet refuses to do so (Shulhan Arukh YD 242:14), they also idealize the practice of resisting such positions until absolutely clear that one is needed (ibid., HM 8:3). Leadership is not about the leader, but only about the cause and the human beings who need help. One who seeks leadership must be suspect: one who recognizes the gravity of the task and is in touch with his or her own weaknesses should be terrified of leading others, lest s/he err and hurt them. Only one who resists leadership is fit to lead; the trick is to come to terms with the responsibility of one’s talents and to lead despite one’s fear. In other words, we’re not really talking about “leadership”, at all, but service – all of us contributing what we have to offer however it is useful.
Moses’s story teaches us that we accomplish the greatest, most desperately needed, tasks when we are centered on social justice, insatiably and radically curious, and resistant of the glory and pitfalls of the fame we may accrue by the by, but ultimately prepared to do our part.
Moses didn’t seek his position and didn’t believe he was capable. How did he come to be effective? It should not be lost on us, as it was not lost on the Rabbis, that Moses describes himself as “not a man of words, not yesterday, not yesterday, not since You spoke to Your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I” (Exodus 4:10), and yet he spends the rest of the Torah talking, a fact highlighted by the Torah’s introduction to Deuteronomy: “These are the words which Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). I am not a man of words…These are the words which Moses spoke. How did he get from point A to point B? I would like to suggest that the reason Moses saw himself as incapable of speech is that no one had ever listened to him before. Perhaps he was ignored as an outsider in Pharaoh’s palace. We see how he was mocked for his snooty activism by community cynics. Then he flees and lives as a lonely, fugitive shepherd. God showed interest into Moses’s thoughts, lured him into conversation so that even as he said he couldn’t speak, Moshe would have to realize that he had just spoken a whole lot in bickering with God, that he is a man of words, after all. As soon as he was listened to, he turned out to produce the precious words without which we wouldn’t even know who we are.
Later, in this light, another out-of-place reject, Hannah, is finally listened to, by God (I Samuel 1-2) and becomes the model for how Jews pray (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 30b-31b). Every time we pray and every time we learn Torah, we dramatize that those who feel too marginal to speak may actually be able to speak the very epicenter of indispensable Jewish insight if only they are listened to. If we stop obsessing about leadership and start practicing morally grounded curiosity about everything and everyone in our midst, if we shatter the assumption that there is any correlation between which words find a way to the public discourse and what is actually there to be said, if we seek maximal contribution and activism, we may well liberate ourselves from all sorts of narrow places that confine our growth.