By Larry Gordon
In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, it’s important to look beyond the details and past the fate of characters such as Big Bird and Elmo. Let’s take for granted that both President Obama and Governor Romney indulge in the art of inexactitude sometimes—that’s the way the political game is played. The reality here is that we 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 for years to come.
I believe that even had we watched the debate with the volume turned down, we might still have come away with the impression that Mitt Romney had significantly bested Barack Obama. Romney came across looking presidential, while 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 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, we read how Moshe passes away and the Jewish nation is instructed to remember him eternally and be inspired by him but also to carry on as the people finally prepare to enter the land of Israel.
Despite our reviewing these adventures year after year, it is still difficult to fully comprehend what kind of leader 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.
The last few sentences of the Torah portion of V’zos HaBerachah that we read in shul on Simchas Torah express 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 30 days, and then the days of weeping over the mourning of Moshe came to an end.”
About the above description, Rashi points 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 describing Moshe’s passing and the ensuing mourning, it implies that only the males amongst the population mourned.
A commentator on this divergence in the description writes that there seems to be something quite unusual occurring 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 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 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 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 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 he also 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, to say in essence that his brother Aharon was more popular and better liked than Moshe himself? Is that an appropriate send-off and a sensible explanation of this text?
I was sitting in shul one evening over this long yom tov when I heard Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, shlita, 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 Journal. I know you’re thinking that it’s not a great juxtaposition—the final portion of the Torah, Simchas Torah, and a WSJ editorial—but it is what it is.
Rav Weinberger explained a brilliant insight from a commentator. Yes, Aharon was able to say to a man that your wife really wants to make amends and change things. And then, almost simultaneously, he was able to go the woman and say that her husband really regrets his 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, doing everything possible in order to achieve peace.
But not Moshe. He was a man of pure and 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. He was, first and foremost, a leader. Difficult decisions can sometimes be painful—your poll 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.)
The piece in the Wall Street Journal that I was reminded of was written by Peggy Noonan, the erudite former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She wrote about the extraordinary impression that Mitt Romney left the public with after the debate with Obama. She said that if Romney wants to win the election he has to continue conducting himself as he did at that debate—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 khakis or jeans or with his shirtsleeves 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 315 million residents 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 voters prefer for themselves. In other words, in order to be a great leader, first and foremost one needs to lead.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.