If you’re disgusted with the presidential campaign even before the first primary, odds are that what most disappoints is a sense that real leadership seems lacking. Against the backdrop of a modern politics of pandering, invective and insult, the leadership qualities that the Torah attributes to Moses leap off the biblical page. All who care about politics — and in our area, that’s most of us — can learn much from Moses’ lesson of leadership through cooperation, efficiency and trust.
The lesson is a classic one. Yitro, priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law, observed Moses spending day after day sitting as judge to resolve the public’s conflicts. Yitro saw Moses burning out and asked bluntly, “What are you doing?” Yitro advised a system to disperse power and influence to others, reserving to Moses only the most difficult matters. Moses enacted Yitro’s system, which became a foundation for fair judiciaries and governments worldwide.
Compare this to today’s candidates invoking dogma or personal certitude to prod positions, compel assent and deride those who disagree. Some candidates say they respect their colleagues but don’t act like it; other candidates don’t even feign respect. By contrast, Moses shared power, authority and influence. Moses showed deep willingness to take advice, admit mistakes, institutionalize cooperation and lead with humility. Where is that candidate today?
Moses seems trustworthy even without a system of government or codified laws, though to modern sensibilities, the legal underpinning of Moses’ government is shaky. Today justice is based on law and legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed. In Moses’ day, justice was based on what individuals deemed right rather than the law (whether divine or human).
Though worthy of trust because he shared power, Moses was a leader who relied on his own sense of right and wrong — and that model is far from ideal. Time and again, we’ve seen the danger of leadership based on claimed rectitude or charisma. We’ve seen it in politics, and we’ve seen it in religious leadership.
As we prepare to elect our next president, we’d do well to remember the wisdom of Yitro to share power, and the wisdom of Moses to implement that advice with candor and humility. When callousness trumps care, we’d be forgiven for wishing that we could nominate a Moses for president, someone unafraid to admit imperfection and share power so readily. When divisiveness becomes so ingrained that we forget that politics once aspired to better, we’d be forgiven for wanting a Yitro as White House chief of staff, with clear vision and wisdom about how to evolve power and those who wield it.
The stakes are even higher than craving better leadership: Today’s deepest challenge is that demagoguery has made a big comeback. Accusations arising from anger and fanaticism increasingly permeate our politics. Debate is healthy and necessary, but fearmongering, prejudice, xenophobia and appeals to moral superiority are dangerous. The specter of a Pharaoh rises anew.
In this moment, the Torah holds a mirror to our national character and asks tough questions about governance. Moses and Yitro ask us to scrutinize our processes, our politics and our political leaders. Foul debate mechanics, unfair voting districts, impeded voter registration, dubious campaign finances, and delayed or refused judicial appointments — all of these reek with disunity and distrust, not cooperation, efficiency and trust.
Whom should we entrust with leadership? Someone who behaves as if they are above the law or who seeks total power, or who evokes an over-righteous sense of moral superiority has a bigger problem than reading the polls.
Let them read their Bible to see in Moses and Yitro what genuine leadership is like. And let us do the same.
Evan J. Krame is a Rockville-based attorney, Jewish Renewal rabbi and co-founder of The Jewish Studio.