Parshat Vaera Leadership and the Road to Greatness

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Moshe’s leadership is the quintessential test of character building.  It contrasts radically with many of the leaders in our age.  Leadership today is increasingly deemed worthy if it is bold, arrogant, certain and egotistical, though often feigning humility (and sometimes not!)

Moshe is a surprising choice of leader to head the greatest scene of exile to freedom in the history of humanity.  An individual plucked from a life of chosen obscurity, divinely charged to return to a life of leadership and prominence.  His earlier move from a life of entitlement, luxury, and privilege to a life of rudimentary living wandering the plains of the desert is not the classic choice.  He is the antithesis of what society aims for today.  Living in a time when most youngsters seek fame, Moshe’s reluctance to become a leader and gain ‘celebrity status’ seems antithetical to our modern sensibilities. But it is precisely for this reason he is chosen. Today more than any other time in history, he should be admired, studied, taught and hailed as the type of leader we ought to be seeking.

Erich Fromm: Having and Being

Erich Fromm, the renowned psychoanalyst, distinguishes between two modes of existence. In the ‘having’ mode Man is convinced that the key to his happiness, self-fulfilment and inner peace comes from ‘acquiring’ things, anything from material possessions to knowledge, love and comprehension of the world.  This says Fromm is a misconceived understanding of man’s essence and in the end only leads to hedonism, universal envy, greed and unhappiness.  The only way that man can achieve true happiness and inner peace is through the mode of ‘being’.  The mode of being is where I am not influenced by any external forces, I am true to myself; I seek things, be it knowledge, happiness and meaning as a means to self-growth as opposed to simply wanting to ‘acquire’ it.  With the increase in consumerism we have begun to define what were once value based qualities such as happiness, self-worth, influence and contentment through the mode of ‘having’.  Advertising and the market economy have led us to believe that buying the latest car/I-pad/phone etc. will increase our status and make us happier and more fulfilled human beings. ‘Being’ which is synonymous with self-growth, introspection, altruism and seeing the other as an end rather than a means to an end, has become almost obsolete. Post-modern man no longer knows what it is to be alone with themselves.  To be lost in their own thoughts, or looking out the window when travelling a long distance reflecting on inner processes or being radically amazed by nature, because there is never a moment where they are not engrossed in a screen, or a game, or communicating through technology.  The ‘face to face’ encounter has been replaced with facetime, and the mode of ‘being’ replaced by the mode of ‘having’. 

David Brooks: The Road to Character      

In a further observation, David Brooks an eloquent American journalist and social commentator notes in his book The Road to Character that we too are focused on achieving our ‘résumé’ virtues, that is the characteristics that make us ‘saleable’ rather than our ‘eulogy virtues’, that is the characteristics that will be spoken about at our funeral.  Adopting the template of Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam 1 and Adam 2 and littered with a positive nostalgia for morality of a time gone by, Brooks presents fascinating biographies of historical personalities that show us how to build our ‘resume virtues’.  A recurrent theme in the book is the twin virtues of humility and the ability for self-sacrifice. I quote a paragraph where he describes the kind of personality we so desperately need to fight the narcistic tendencies of self-absorption and immediate gratification that plague the impulse society of today.

“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion.  They are not leading fragmented scattershot lives.  They have achieved inner integration.  They are calm settled rooted…. their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain.   Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved.  The possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but do not need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, retinance, temperance, respect and soft self-discipline.”

He continues by emphasising the much-needed quality of humility:

“The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring.  Humility is the freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in small space-self-concerned, competitive, and distinction hungry……Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.  This is the way humility leads to wisdom.   The people we are wise have to some degree, overcome their biases and overconfident tendencies infused in our nature…for people of this sort, the external drama up the ladder of success is important, but the inner struggle against ones’ own weakness is the central drama of life…Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others.  But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weakness in himself.”[1]

It is striking that Moshe possesses many of the characteristics Brooks enumerates in his book, humility self-sacrifice, patience.   Moshe’s life is quintessential ‘being’ as described by Fromm. Through his own choosing he moves from the ‘having’ society of Egypt where self-worth was defined through what one possessed to the emptiness of the desert which as Fromm describes:

The desert is no home: it has no cities; it has no riches; it is the place of nomads who own what they need and what they need are the necessities of life, not possessions.[2]  

Moshe as the quintessential leader

Moshe, a man of ‘being’ makes his journey from the peak of civilisation to a nomadic existence; from a mode of ‘having’ to a mode of ‘being’.  When he tries to define God at the burning bush asking Him His name, he is attempting to some degree, to place Him within a contextual box, to possess a certain image or description of His essence. God responds by reminding Moshe that any true encounter must take place in the mode of ‘being’ and not ‘having’. To ‘define’ another, to create another in the image I want the other to be moulded – that is to ‘possess’ the other.[3]  Thus God responds with the famous adage ” אהיה אשר אהיה” – I will be what I will be.  Any encounter between humankind and their creator must be through the mode of being and not the mode of having.[4] Though Moshe had begun this journey alone on a physical and psychological level, he needed to be taught the principle on a cognitive level.  He needed to learn how to relate to a different type of God, a Divinity that did not seek power, did not need manipulating or defining but rather needed addressing and partnership in the mode of covenant, Brit.

Moshe and the Road to Character

Moshe is a man plagued by uncertainty. His persistent questioning and inability to accept the status quo as well as his constant self-effacement ‘who am I go to speak to Pharaoh, I am not a man of words, I am of uncircumcised lips’. These are not the characteristics one would naturally expect of a leader.  Brooks would remind us that they do not bode well for his ‘résumé’ virtues’.  But they are indicative of a person who recognises their limits, who understand that character building is a journey of a lifetime.   This is a person who is painfully self-aware and humble, perhaps too much so.  This a human being who spends time nurturing his ‘eulogy’ virtues.   Time and again we are told משה האיש Moshe the ‘man’; the only human to ever have had a face to face encounter with God, the greatest leader of all time, the teacher and role model for millions spanning centuries, was not a God, and not even ‘God Like’ – he was a human being.[5]  Not only in a literal sense but also in metaphorical one.  He never once portrayed himself as God like, he never self-aggrandized making a pretence of being something he was not, even when he had every right and means to do so.  He remained both to himself and to the people a human, with human flaws, human feelings and human struggles.   But he also had a remarkable ability for self-sacrifice.  When his people sin, God wants to make him into a great nation, but instead of jumping on the band wagon of self-advancement as many leaders would do today, he stands unfalteringly with his people, prepared to die for their right to live.  He gives up his greatest dream of entering the good land, since he recognises, unlike so many leaders today, that his leadership is not suited to the next generation; They need someone new with fresh blood and a different approach. The image is a tragic one.  The leader that would sacrifice everything for his people standing at the foot of the promised land knowing he would never enter it. His sacrifice in every realm, personal, psychological, spiritual, existential, meant that his people could fulfil the dream he could not.  The man who could not speak has transformed into the paradigmatical orator relaying to his people an everlasting legacy transcribed in Sefer Devarim. It is a legacy of hope and a better tomorrow but equally one of realism and an acknowledgment of human nature.  The journey from muteness to speech, from obscurity to eminence was not an easy one.  It involved much heartache and soul searching coupled with sustained effort and struggle.   He was not an ‘overnight success’ or a ‘nobody’ suddenly exalted to celebrity success.   How did he grow? How did he manage to succeed in his unlikely leadership?

The answer is obvious. He did not seek fame or fortune, recognition or great power.  He recognised that he was not going to ‘make history’ but he was part of a long chain of great people that came before him and would come after him who succeed in influencing humanity.

On uncircumcised lips and Humility

In this week’s parsha when Moshe turns to God once again, berating his inability to affect Pharaoh or the people of Israel stating:

“וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם – The Children of Israel have not listened to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me? I am a man of uncircumcised lip’s’. [6]

Moshe ‘uncircumcised lips’ are reminiscent of the act of circumcision, an act of removing an excess layer. In the mode of ‘having’ we convince ourselves that the excess layers in our lives, both in a literal materialistic sense and the layers we use to hide our inner selves, are necessary.  Egypt was the hub of excessiveness. How could Moshe who had become a creature of moderation, living primarily in a mode of ‘being’, relate to the leader of Egypt that embodied the ‘having’ mode. His inability to speak was a cry for help from God. He needed a quick fix, a change of personality, an ability to become something he was not, so he could persuade those that needed persuading.

God’s response is telling.  Immediately he tells him again to go and speak to Pharaoh.

‘  יג וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיְצַוֵּם אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶל-פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם–לְהוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – 13 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, and gave them a charge unto the children of Israel, and unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt

He teaches him the ethos of perseverance and the meaning of process.  Nothing can be achieved in a single swoop, one needs patience and sustainability.  But the deeper answer lies in the very next verse. In a strange juxtaposition, we have a list of the lineage of Moshe’s household.

–  אֵלֶּה, רָאשֵׁי בֵיתאֲבֹתָם these are the heads of their father’s household

What is it doing here, why is it placed in the middle of the exodus narrative?  I think the answer relates to what has been discussed here.  Success today especially amongst the youth is measured by how quickly I can become famous.  Fame today comes notably from reality TV shows, that shoot the individual from obscurity to levels of fame overnight.  There is very little effort required and their fame is based on superficial and often overstated praise and flattery for doing very little.  It is based, like its ancient counterpart, on an ethic of excessiveness and materialism.  It is a fame that enhances ones ‘résumé’ virtues but fails to nurture their ‘eulogy’ ones.  The Torah voices Moshe’s doubts and then immediately places his lineage to emphasis a central tenant of how the Torah perceives leadership. It is as if God is saying to Moshe ‘you are part of something far larger than just yourself, nothing can be achieved overnight, success cannot be defined through immediate results.  Moshe – if you measure your success as a leader on the immediate responses, your leadership will fall fast’.

No revolution can be born overnight, no sustainable change can be made in a day.  Leadership requires patience, time and effort.  Fame, influence and leadership that comes overnight without much effort is not sustainable and lacks authenticity.  When we talk of the Avot in tefillah we name three of them together Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The success of each is dependent on the other. Avraham’s revolution could not have been sustained without the passiveness of Yitzchak and so forth. To know that we not indispensable humbles us, to know we are capable of success guided by the message of God and created in His image emboldens us.  Moshe’s despondency is met by the Divine with a reminder of his lineage, the fact that he comes from greatness and to greatness he can climb, but equally knowing this cannot be achieved overnight or alone. Every successful leader knows that he stands on the shoulders of giants, every bad leader believes he is the giant and others stand on his shoulders.    The narrative ends with these words:

אֵלֶּה, רָאשֵׁי אֲבוֹת הַלְוִיִּם–לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם.  כו הוּא אַהֲרֹן, וּמֹשֶׁה–אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, לָהֶם, הוֹצִיאוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, עַל-צִבְאֹתָם.  כז הֵם, הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל-פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרַיִם, לְהוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם; הוּא מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן.

These were the leaders of the fathers of the Levites.  26 This was the Aaron and Moses, to whom the LORD said: ‘Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their hosts.’ 27 They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt. This was Moses and Aaron.

This was Moshe and Aaron – these words are a poignant reminder of who we are.  Moshe and Aaron are their ancestors.  None of us are born in a vacuum. We are all part of a chain of generations, a legacy that precedes us, but each of us can make a legacy that ensues after us.  If we focus on ‘being’ more than we focus on ‘having’, if we cultivate our ‘eulogy’ virtues and not only our ‘resume’ virtues, if we choose to see our potential greatness with a large dose of humility and self-sacrifice, we can all become influential people, for like Moshe and Aaron we all descend from greatness and on the shoulders of Giants we stand.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] David Brooks: The Road to Character chapter 1

[2] Erich Fromm: Having and Being p42

[3] This is the key to understanding idol worship and the command not to create an image of God.  When I mould God into the type of person I want Him to be, and I stubbornly defy any evidence or experience that contradicts my own self-made definition I am ‘possessing’ God as opposed to ‘encountering’ Him. This is the essence of idol worship especially into today’s age. See Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit: Idolatry

[4] It is interesting to note that much of the exodus narrative is a sustained effort to create a paradigm shift in the minds of the Israelites.  Everything that was ‘certain’ to them, the Nile as the life force, the animals as sustenance, the body as a temple, the first born as the obvious heir to power, light etc. was transformed into an extreme mode of uncertainty.  The move from slavery to freedom required not just a physical release but more dramatically a cognitive shift.  The people had to learn to re-think their existing certainties about life, man and God.  Many of the plagues were an effort to this affect.

[5] From the first narrative in the garden of Eden we see humanity’s desire to be ‘God Like’ that has persisted ever since in many guises. Eating from the tree of knowledge, Chava heeds to the promise of the serpent that she will achieve Divine knowledge.  The divine response both then and throughout Tanach is a lesson in waiting, patience and process.  Knowledge can be achieved through a touch of a button, wisdom takes a lifetime to perfect, external success can be won through winning victories over others, true success means winning a victory over the weaknesses in myself.  It means delaying immediate gratification to achieve long term goals. It means living a life of sustained self-discipline and a love and devotion to values and virtues worthy of effort.  God commands man to work the land and woman to carry and raise a child.  To be ‘God Like’ doesn’t mean eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it means working at something, dealing with disappointment, controlling our anger, self-mastery, sacrificing for something larger than just ourselves. This is a key theme in Tanach that Moshe acts out in his lifetime.

[6] Shemot 6:12

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