Getting the leaders we deserve

  • RabbiChaikinUSE
I was driving on a quiet country road in the Free State recently on my way to supervise the shechita (slaughter) at one of our abattoirs. My journey was delayed by a flock of sheep crossing my path.
by RABBI YOSSI CHAIKIN | Apr 18, 2019

It was quite a large gathering of animals, making me late, but with no choice, I could only sit back, relax, and observe as the skilful shepherd managed to get the animals to move.

The trick, it appeared, was simply to get the first sheep to go in the desired direction. The others just followed. Each member of the pack faithfully followed the creatures in front.

As could be expected, one of the flock did its own thing, and ran away. As I waited patiently, I thought of the famous Midrashic account of Moses tending his sheep in the Midianite desert.

At one point, one of the animals got away, and the faithful shepherd followed it down to the stream. The sheep had gone to quench its thirst, and was now too tired to join the rest of the flock. So, Moses gently lifted the animal and carried it back up the hill.

From above, G-d watched and decided to choose Moses as the leader of the future Jewish nation.

But back to reality. On this April morning in the Free State, the impatient shepherd smote the stray animal with his staff, and sent him back to the flock with a kick.

Pesach this year falls between two elections in which our South African Jewish community has a keen interest. Last week, Israelis went to the polls to (re)-elect a leader for their/our country. And soon after the holiday, voting will take place here in South Africa.

Are humans that different to sheep? Do we just follow the crowd when it comes to choice of leaders? Are there lessons from Pesach about what a true leader is, and how he must be elected?

Moses is the obvious hero of this story, although his name barely features in the Haggadah, the official account of the exodus.

Raised in Pharaoh’s palace, he had actually spent the bulk of his years in exile in distant Midian. How did this stranger gain the trust of this people, and successfully convince them to follow him out into an inhospitable desert on a journey to a promised land?

In our culture, leaders run for office. Moses, on the other hand, did everything he could to run from office.

The Torah relates the exchange between G-d and the about-to-be-anointed leader at the Burning Bush. For seven days, Moses advanced every argument against his appointment. He felt he was not up to the task, that he lacked the communication skills required, and had a speech impediment.

He went as far as suggesting that his brother, Aharon, would make a better candidate, being older and also having spent previous decades among the suffering Israelites. He said Aharon would thus be better received. None of these objections prevailed, and as we say the rest is, literally, history.

As we become familiar with the profile of our first leader, the first quality that emerges is of absolute humility. He is described in the Torah as the humblest of men ever to have lived.

Not to say that he lacked stature, personality, or leadership skills. In fact, he excelled in all of the above. But never did he become haughty, and he was always convinced that any other human with the same talents would do as good, if not better, a job.

Just as he had in the Midianite hills with his ovine charges, he showed total love, dedication, and care for each member of his human flock. He gave himself selflessly, trying to assist everyone personally. Hence his father-in-law, Jethro’s, advice that he must appoint subordinates, and G-d’s eventual election of 70 elders to assist him.

In the 21st century, altruism and humility are both rare, in particular in our elected leaders. Sadly, Moses was not on the ballot in Israel last week, nor will he be a candidate on 8 May.

Cynics often say that countries get the leaders they deserve. May G-d bless us to be worthy of humble and dedicated heads of state.

Wishing you Chag Pesach Kosher Vesameach!

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi of Oxford Shul, and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.


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