Thursday, December 26, 2013

Vaera and the Call of Leadership

Whether you are home discovering a respite from the pressing schedules of work and school or away enjoying some precious days in the warming sun or perhaps skiing down a mountain of snow, take these moments to drink in some words of Torah.

God chooses Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.  Moses is charged with extraordinarily weighty tasks.  He must first appeal to the mighty Pharaoh demanding that his slaves be freed.  Moses protests to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)  His tasks appear overwhelming and daunting. 

One of the hallmarks of our great Jewish leaders is that they do not want the job.  They do not seek leadership positions.  Instead these seek them out.  They do not pine after accolades or power.  At times it appears that God even pursues our leaders.  God calls to Moses out of an ordinary and plain bush, albeit one that burns but remains unconsumed.  The prophet Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish when trying to flee.  Like Moses the prophets view their abilities as lacking.  Yet, these are exactly the type of leaders God calls.

On one level the Bible’s import is clear.  These leaders are God’s instruments.  It is not their abilities that move historical events but instead God.  One way to read the Bible is as a record of God’s involvement in human affairs and in particular a concern for the Jewish people.  Moses does not then lead the people out of Egypt but instead God.  Moses does not even speak to Pharaoh.  He is but a mouthpiece.

On another level the Torah offers an important lesson about leadership.  The greatest of leaders are those who find themselves, most often by circumstance and timing, in situations that require their active involvement.  They do not seek positions of power.  They do not relish fame. These pursue them.  It is what is asked of them by these situations that makes them great.  Whether by God or circumstance, they are called to action.   They do not seek greatness.  It follows from the word of God, it moves from a call.

Nelson Mandela offers a modern example.  In his most famous of speeches, delivered before being sentenced to jail for what would amount to 27 years, Mandela said:   
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.  During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
I do not imagine that greatness is achieved by seeking to die for a cause.  Many great men and women have been prepared to die for the sake of an ideal.  Their willingness to sacrifice their own lives is not the hallmark of great leaders.  Our times confuse this point.  We are witness to far too many who hold up the desire for death as a goal and measure of leadership.

A willingness to sacrifice is indeed a measure of greatness.  More important is the Bible’s lesson that humility and the eschewing of fame are the best measures of extraordinary leadership.

Leadership pursues a select few.  Greatness follows only those who do not seek it.

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