D’var Torah: Leadership lessons from Deuteronomy

Rabbi Alan M. Klein

Rabbi Alan M. Klein

Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have have asked how he could govern a people with 246 cheeses.  This is a notable milestone on a long history of leaders (even great and beloved ones) complaining about the people they are supposed to lead. One of the early chapters of this story is this week’s Torah portion, Eikev.  Moses quotes God as calling the Israelites “a stiff-necked people.”  We don’t have any quotes at this point about what the people thought of Moses. Still, the episode gives us an opportunity to reflect on the chemistry of human leadership.

In our world people often select their leaders and leaders are supposed to volunteer for their roles in an organization.  There’s a long history of efforts to make this process as rational as possible.  Our synagogues really try to do this, as do their rabbis and lay leaders.  How successful they are varies quite a bit. In the end, the process of choosing a leader is hard to understand, and the history of success or failure of leaders – and hence organizations -only offers only clues and no clear guidelines.

Still, we can learn a lot from this week’s portion and also from our experience.

Moses never presents himself as the perfect leader.  He is merely a messenger of God – perhaps perfect,  probably not. He knows that he has some difficulty understanding the average Israelite in the wilderness, and he knows he is in a wilderness.  Yet even in the wilderness he knows that what he does and says have lasting inportance. Hence his frustration.  

He has a talent for outlining the consequences of various actions by the people both for good and bad and he exploits this to the max.

Even so,  he doesn’t expect perfection from his followers.  He knows his people are important but not exemplary.  So he never gives up – even to the end.  

Those of us who prepare b’nai mitzvot learn very quickly that most are not brilliant students or from perfect families, yet their tutoring is among the most important thing any of us can do, and who can doubt that being teenager is a deep wilderness.

Our own experience can help us understand this portion’s take on leadership. Even in the Torah,  Moses’s leadership is balanced by that of his brother Aaron. In our own experience we know that leadership can take many forms.  

I took two Zumba exercise classes recently – one taught by a woman who spoke not a word but used very expressive gestures, and another who taught using lots of speech -some merely for reassurance.  Both were very succesful.

You can fill in from your own experience in synagogues and athletic teams – and even in politics.

Leadership is important in our world.It is not an absolute good.  There are plenty of good leaders of bad causes, but for good causes – including Judaism – to prosper, we need good leaders.  The Torah can guide us to use our own experience and judgements to select them.  

Finally, we are all leaders of many things in our lives.  Some of these are in wildernesses of their own.  We can learn from this portion to be realistic about our followers but also to never to give up.  Like Moses, we may never reach a promised land, but our efforts are a promised land of their own.

Parashat Eikev

Rabbi Alan M. Klein is a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association