In the aftermath of the presidential debate that took place last week. It’s important to look beyond the details and past the fate that waits characters like Big Bird, Elmo and the like. Let’s take for granted that both President Obama and Governor Romney indulge the art of inexactitude sometimes— that’s just the way that the political game is played. The reality here is that we as voters are not simply selecting the leader of the United States but charting the course of what America will look like and how others will perceive us going forward for years to come.
I believe that even had some of us watched the debate with the volume turned down, we may have still come away from the experience with the impression that Mitt Romney had bested Barrack Obama in a considerable and significant fashion. And why is that? Because Romney came across presidential looking, for one thing, and Mr Obama—even though he is the president—simply did not seem to be playing the part adequately.
Which brings us to the subject of the just elapsed holiday season and the matter— as well as the question— of leadership. After spending so many months, week after week reading and studying about the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people under the direction and leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, the moment finally arrives where Moshe passes away and the Jewish nation is instructed to remember him eternally and be inspired by him but to also carry on as they prepare their final maneuvers in order to enter the land of Israel.
Despite our reviewing our studies and these adventures year after year, it is still difficult to grasp or fully comprehend what kind of leader of the Jewish people Moshe was. On the one hand he was a man who had to deal with the difficulties and challenges of life, (his own and many others) on the other he was like a superman and there was no one like him.
In fact in the last few sentences of the Torah portion of V’Zos HaBracha that we read in shul on Simchas Torah expresses that exact sentiment. It states: “No prophet like Moshe ever arose in Israel, whom G-d knew face to face as manifested by the signs and wonders which G-d had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt.”
Curiously just prior to that statement the Torah says: “The men of Israel wept for Moshe in the plains of Moav for thirty days, and then the days the days of weeping over the mourning of Moshe came to an end.
About the above description Rashi point out a dichotomy and contrast in the way that the people of Israel mourned Moshe’s brother, Aharon the High Priest. About Aharon it says that he was mourned by “all the people of Israel,” meaning both men and women wept over the loss. Here in descripting Moshe’s passing and the ensuing mourning it says that only the males amongst the rather large population mourned.
So a commentator on this divergence of the description of the periods writes that there seems to be something quite unusual occurung here. After all, it states in no uncertain terms that Moshe was the greatest man to ever grace this planet of ours. And then it seems to indicate and even emphasize that while the people mourned the fact of their loss in Moshe’s passing, they seemed to be far more despondent over the passing earlier of Aharon the Kohen Gadol.
Is that a respectable or suitable way to not just conclude the Five Books of Moses but to in a sense eulogize Moshe by saying he was a good and wonderful man but his brother was in some ways even greater. What kind of parting words are those?
Our commentators dissect and analyze these observations setting out before us the differences in approaches to leadership and human emotions as practiced individually by Moshe and Aharon. The elder brother and the Kohen Gadol, Aharon was a man who pursued peaceful relations between man and his fellow man as well as between husband and wife. He was a man, loved by all across the board because of a certain type of flexibility and perhaps even a unique understanding he displayed when it came to the thoughtfulness required in dealing with human relationships and emotions.
Moshe on the other hand was a person consumed by and committed to the concept of unmitigated truth. How can a man who was able to interface directly with G-d Himself be anything short of absolute truthfulness? There may not be any wiggle room or flexibility when one’s entire composition is maximum truth and uprightness. Of course Aharon featured those qualities as well but featured an ability to supersede what from only a human perspective might be considered as the limitations of truth (if there is such a thing).
But back to our original question—is this the way to characterize Moshe and explain who he was and the contribution that he made to the development of the great nation of Israel—by saying in essence that his brother Aharon was more popular and better liked than Moshe himself? Is that the sendoff or an appropriate or even sensible explanation of this text at the conclusion of the Torah?
I was sitting in shul one evening over this just elapsed very long yom tov when I heard the Rabbi pose this question. And his answer grabbed me and reminded me of something I had read just a couple of days prior in the Wall Street Jounal. I know you’re thinking that its not a great juxtaposition—the final portion of the Torah, Simchas Torah and a WSJ editorial but it is what it is.
The Rabbi explained a brilliant insight from a commentator he had seen who explained these last few sentences as being illustrative and expressive. Yes, Aharon was able to say to a man that your wife really wants to make amends and change things or something along those lines. And then almost simultaneously he was able to go the woman and say that her husband really regrets her actions and wants to make amends or try again as well. This was Aharon’s greatness—tweaking and staying one step ahead of the way people usually think—that is everything within the real of possibility in order to achieve peace.
But not Moshe. He was a man of pure and even intense leadership. He was forced at times to make hard decisions—sometimes decisions that did not seem to make sense or that did not have the support of the general population. But that was an important dimension of his greatness. If one wants to be a leader he or she has to first and foremost be able to lead. Difficult decisions can sometimes be painful—-your polls numbers may even sometimes drop as a result. It really should be a minimal qualification.
There were no polls being taken fortunately in the Sinai Desert in those days. And that’s what I read in the Wall Street Journal on the same dasy that I heard the Rabbi discuss the leadership of Moshe. The piece was written by the erudite former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan—Peggy Noonan.
She wrote about the extraordinary impression that Mitt Romney left the public with after last week’s debate with President Obama. She said that if Romney wants to win the election he has to continue conducting himself like he did at that debate last week—that is looking and sounding presidential. That means, she wrote, no more looking like the average Joe in the street. She said that Romney should not allow himself to be seen any longer in khaki’s or jeans or his shirt sleeves rolled up. In public appearances, she said, always wear a suit and tie and be seen at a podium looking important—the way a President of the United States should look.
And this was her point. A leader of a country like ours is not just one of the people. Not only does there have to be distance between a leader of 325 million people and the people he leads, but the people want it precisely that way. The polls and the newspapers may not encourage conducting oneself in this manner but this is apparently what the people prefer for themselves. In other words in order to be a great leader, first and foremost one needs to lead.