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Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph.D.

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What the Next American President Should Have in Common With Moses

Posted: 02/28/2012 11:33 am

In November, the American public will, once again, have the awesome responsibility of choosing who will lead the world's most powerful nation. The candidates' party affiliation, experience and stance on the issues are, of course, among the key factors to be taken into account in making our decision. But what are the personal attributes that we should be looking for in our President? What are the individual characteristics that make an exceptional leader? To help us determine that, it may behoove us to look back, way back. For religious ideals aside, the bible offers us some of the best examples of individuals whose attributes would make them outstanding leaders even today.

Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, emerged triumphant, in part, because he was able to adapt to every situation and formulate the correct response within that reality. He knew how to interpret dreams and interact with prisoners, and yet he also knew how to behave respectfully and advise the Pharaoh of Egypt. He knew when to say "no" and run away from his master's wife who tried to seduce him, and yet marry her daughter and feel comfortable with the mother-in-law who behaved improperly toward him in the past. He knew how to allow his brothers to reach a full remorseful transformation, regretting the deeds that sent Joseph into exile in Egypt and causing great pain to their father. Rather than taking vengeance upon them, he waited for the moment when he was assured that they had fully repented for their deeds before revealing himself to them, and creating a complete rapprochement. He ruled as the popular Viceroy of Egypt (both during flourishing times and times of famine), because he planned thoughtfully for the future crisis and thus resiliently saved the nation through his foresight.

Moses, because of his great faith, humility and strength was able to shepherd his people and help them to develop from an enslaved, dependent flock to a nation who grew in faith. He did so by caring about their needs, supporting them through their anxieties and rebelliousness, and by conveying a message so uplifting that it inspired the whole nation. Because he came to his people as an outsider, raised in the house of Pharaoh, he was not weighed down by a slave mentality. Rather he had the strength and confidence to rely on his inner conscience, as he slew the Egyptian oppressor who harassed the Hebrew slave. He had the courage to go off to the desert on his own leaving the secure palace of the King and, as a result, discovered something new, the "burning bush." Many people may have passed the bush but only Moses noticed it as he "turned aside" from the common path and out of curiosity, patiently contemplated this bush that would not be consumed and what that meant. He could have kept his discovery -- that there is a spiritual dimension to this world -- to himself, but he chose to return to Egypt and educate his people with his new knowledge, and, as a result, he brought a new consciousness into the world. Throughout, he showed great courage in standing up to Pharaoh, to injustice, and to the rebels within his own people.

Aaron, Moses' brother, was a peacemaker; gently bringing people together, patiently having faith that reconciliation was possible through love and active listening. When the people rebelled by the Golden Calf, he did not angrily condemn them but sought a way to calm them down enough so that Moses would return, and impart faith upon them once more. He was so beloved by his people that when he died they mourned for him for 40 days longer than for Moses. As a priest, he brought the prayers of his people to G-d, always asking for compassion and forgiveness for his people. When his two sons were killed for bringing a "strange" sacrifice, he did not rebel, but silently accepted the edict of G-d. He was known as an active peacemaker amongst his people and, as noted in Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers"), "a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, and a lover of humanity."

David, a king of the Jewish nation, was not only a warrior, but a poet, a singer and a leader who loved his people. While he had much compassion, he also fought great wars to conquer the enemies of the Jewish people and created a kingdom for them. He was a model of "wholeness" rather than perfection, in that he had many flaws; one of which was taking Uriah's wife, Batsheba, when she was still married and having her husband become a casualty on the front lines. But he is praised because he acknowledged his mistake, was genuinely remorseful, pledged never to repeat this again and kept his word in that regard. His ability to take responsibility for his faults, to grow and change was a laudatory quality that enabled him to become a great leader who was deeply admired.

Thousands of years have passed yet the reputations of Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David live on; Joseph, the prudent visionary, Moses, courageous and dedicated, Aaron, the problem-solver and unifier; and David, the king who willingly acknowledged his mistakes and grew from them. Living in the 21st century, we face challenges that would have been unimaginable in biblical times. But as we contemplate our choices for President and consider who would best lead this great nation in the near future, it might help us to take a moment and look back. And, in doing so, we may realize that the personal attributes that made Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David such exceptional leaders millennia ago, are relevant and resonate today.