06/28/2013 11:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Leadership Statement for the Ages (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

The whole of Moses' life is remarkable. Yet certain moments still stand out for their exemplary selflessness, frankness and courage.

When Moses learns with certainty that he will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, he does not utter a single word of protest. Moses' thoughts are solely for his people:

Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd. (Num. 27:16-17)

There can rarely have been so concise a description of the challenges of leadership.

The first of these is clarified in the commentary of the medieval Jewish exegete, Rashi. Why, he asks, does Moses employ the unusual expression "God of the spirits of all flesh?"

He said to God: Master of the world, the minds of each and every person are revealed to you, and they are not alike. Appoint over them a leader who will bear with each and every one of them according to his or her opinions.

There are plenty of leaders who know how to give orders, but not how to listen. An autocrat has no interest in dissenting views or in understanding the sensitivities of different personalities and parties. But such a person, Moses implies, can never become a true leader.

I believe this is true of both political and spiritual leadership. A friend who had been involved in peace negotiations told me that one has to keep three sets of reactions in mind. There is the response across the table between the negotiating teams, the response along the table within the same team and the anticipated response from behind the table, when one's country learns what's been conceded and what gained. Thus, even as one speaks, one must constantly listen.

This applies with a different nuance to spiritual leadership, too. I was once asked whether I thought there was really any purpose to those long monologues known as sermons. But a true sermon is not a monologue, even if it has only one speaker at the point of delivery.

A serious sermon is the fruit of much listening, of thoughts and questions absorbed over many encounters with community and subliminally processed into a thoughtful and heartfelt response.

The second challenge of leadership is more explicit. The leader, Moses states, must "go out before (the people) and come in before them," not, in Rashi's words, "sit at home and send out the army." This doesn't mean, of course, that every leader requires military experience, but it does indicate that one can only lead compellingly according to those principles and values for which one is prepared to go out in person and struggle.

This battle must always be carried out in words and deeds. If I say I believe in compassion, am I compassionate? If I claim to represent justice, am I just? If I preach about the poor, do I devote myself to their cause? If I wax eloquent about the environment, do I actually cut my personal and corporate carbon emissions and plant trees? If not, why not?

It is debated whether Ghandi actually said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," but he certainly lived the creed. People soon smell out the leader who doesn't live what he or she professes. One can't ever succeed in doing so perfectly; but what matters is that one tries, to the very depths of one's being.

Moses' third claim about leadership concerns effectiveness. It isn't enough for the leader to go out alone before the people; he or she must also "bring them out" -- that is, take them along into the arena of struggle.

Of course, there are many kinds of leadership. Prophets, if not ignored, are frequently stoned for saying precisely what nobody wishes to hear, let alone follow. Poets, whom Shelley calls "the unacknowledged legislators of the world"," are rarely heeded in their own generation by more than the eclectic few. But the person who wants to lead effectively toward principles and policies that can actually be implemented and engender change cannot adopt a position so out of touch with the current consensus that he or she fails to connect with it and exert any pull.

This presents an immense challenge to the visionary. How often people say, "She's out of touch with reality," or "he's just another dreamer." If I can't articulate my vision in a language that people understand and to which they can relate, and if I am unable to lead people toward that vision step by step, rather than looking as if I'm calling out from the far side of the moon, I almost certainly can't lead, at least not in the immediate terms to which Moses refers.

Leadership demands strategic skill.

Moses expresses all this in two brief sentences, because he knows it in his body and soul from 40 years of challenging experience.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.