After months and months of primaries and debates and name-calling and general nastiness, the parameters of the presidential election are set and the campaign is entering its final phase. And it certainly cannot be a coincidence that this is happening as we are reading Bamidbar. After all, one of its themes is leadership.
Leadership is surely one focus of this week’s parsha. After finishing the story of Pinhas, which we began reading last week, the Torah tells us that God commanded Moses and Eleazar, Aaron’s son who succeeded him as high priest, to conduct a census of the adult male Israelites that would be used to apportion the land among the tribes and families.
After the census has been concluded, God instructs Moses to ascend the mountain from which he will be able to see the Promised Land, and then God says, “When you have seen it, you shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.” Moses responds, “Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Of course, this seems a bit too pious to be true. Indeed, the rabbis of the midrash paint a more believable picture of Moses’ reaction. First, he argues forcefully that God should let him live to bring the people into the land. After all, this is what he had been trying to accomplish for 40 years. And when God refuses to change his mind, Moses lobbies for one of his sons to succeed him, but God doesn’t go for that either.
Moses would die in the wilderness and Joshua would lead the people into the Land, and so Moses spoke to God about the qualities of the new leader — one who would go out before them and come in before them, who would take them out and bring them in.
In his commentary Avnei Ezel, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (Poland, 1897-1943) wrote, “The test of the true leader is that he goes out before the people, that he does not adjust himself to what the masses want. He brings them up to him rather than going down to them.” The measure of a leader is that he or she strives to do the right thing, even when it’s not the popular thing.
Think of two of the great leadership failures in the Tanach. Aaron makes the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the people had heard the voice of God speaking to them. And when Moses confronts him, Aaron says he had just done what the people asked him to do. The prophet Samuel instructs Saul to destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions. Yet, after the battle, Saul makes Agog, the Amalekite king, a prisoner and spares the best animals. When Samuel arrives and challenges him, Saul claims he was just doing what his troops wanted, and for this, Saul loses the kingship to David.
Leadership requires more than doing what the people ask, for if that were all that mattered, we could dispense with leaders and decide everything by popular vote. A leader has to help those whom he or she leads to make hard choices, to put the common good above self-interest, to do what is right.
A leader has to lead — and you can’t do that with one eye on the polls.