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Right now, the internet in its various formats – from Facebook to twitter and beyond – as well as more traditional media, such as the New York Times, are full of discussions about the sad case of a Rabbi who has, by his own admission, committed a number of awful sexual crimes and misdemeanors. There is very little doubt about the facts, which certainly should be enough to guarantee that this dangerous and manipulative person will never teach, lecture to, or counsel anyone ever again. Apparently, however, that is not what will happen, and I am pretty sure we will be reading about his grotesque exploits and irrelevant insights again sometime in the future.
I had the misfortune of very briefly meeting this person, at a public event, and was immediately sickened by his obvious arrogance, emotional instability, and general “it’s all about me” weirdness. In trying to understand how otherwise intelligent people have been, and continue to be, taken in by him, I have read a bit about the case. The word that keeps popping up is “charisma.” This person is consistently described as being vary charismatic, exciting, emotionally stimulating, and inspiring, to his students and followers.
In this week’s parsha, Shemot, we are introduced to the Jewish leader and teacher par excellence – Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi, our teacher. What we know about him from this week’s portion, as well as from later on in the Torah, is that he was decidedly not charismatic. He stutters, describes himself as inarticulate, is humble, and, crucially, very reluctant to take on the mantle and responsibility of leadership which God offers to him at the burning bush. So unwilling was he to lead, that God finally lost His temper with him and his constant refusals, ending the conversation and just about pushing him off to go see Pharaoh.
Once he was finally cajoled by God into accepting the role, he certainly had trouble getting the people to follow him. Again and again, starting in this week’s parsha when Moshe tried unsuccessfully to break up a fight between two Jewish slaves, the Israelites reject him, complain about and challenge his leadership, and, at the end of the parsha, when his first request to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go backfires, and leads to even harsher conditions of slavery, they speak bitterly against him and his leadership abilities.
And yet, ultimately, we know that Moshe was a great leader, who, with much difficulty and many setbacks, did succeed in freeing the Jewish people from slavery, getting them to Mt. Sinai, giving them the Torah, and preparing them to enter the Promised Land.
And that would seem to be the lesson here. Leadership is about content. It is about selfless dedication to the project, and the people who are meant to benefit from the project. It is not about “me” – the leader; his personality, his charisma, his needs. It is also very much not about his personal interaction with those who follow him. Although Moshe’s relationship to each individual Jew is an interesting topic, about which there is much to say, it is clearly not what his leadership was all about – he had barely interacted with the Israelites at all, and was in fact in a totally different country, when God chose him to lead them. Rather, his leadership is about ideas, ideals, and communal needs and goals. In its dedication to higher, larger goals, it almost borders on the impersonal.
The mistaken and dangerous notion that what we look for in leaders is some sort of exciting, charismatic figure to wow us, sweep us off our feet, and somehow touch us in a very personal way, is precisely what enables people like the criminal under discussion to fool us into thinking they are worth listening to, and following. We mistakenly choose an exciting, edgy, over-the-top personality over real leadership, with real content, and real meaning. I am not sure why this is so – my guess is that there is something exciting about the transgressive, erotic (in the Freudian sense) nature of what this type of “leader” presents. Exciting it may be, and it is probably appropriate at a rock concert (although, remember, there are plenty of bad, creepy rock stars, who we are better off enjoying from the distance of a pair of headphones), but it has nothing to do with Torah, truth, leadership, real personal growth, or the common good. In its self referential arrogance, its over-inflated and selfish egoism, it is actually always about what is good for one person and one person only, and we know who that is. This model of “leadership” is the exact opposite of Moshe, the humble, reluctant, focused-on-the-goal servant of God and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Shimon Felix