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Leadership in Strange Times

Sermon Shabbat Shemot 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

President George HW Bush died this month, and I am reminded of a classic joke that first circulated during his presidency. It seems that President Bush, accompanied by his secret service detail, was in an airport and across the terminal he saw a guy with a long beard, wearing a robe and sandals and carrying a walking staff. He said to the secret service guys, “I think that’s Moses. Let’s go over and talk to him.” And so Bush, trailed by his secret service agents, headed towards the man. But the guy saw them coming and started to walk quickly away. They followed him, he looked back at them and started to run. So they chased him down, and cornered him at the end of the gate area. He finally gave up and turned around to face Bush and his group. And President Bush said, “Aren’t you Moses?” And Moses gave a big sigh and said, “Yes, I’m Moses.” So the president said, “Why were you running away from me?” And Moses said, “The last time I talked to a bush I had to wander in the desert for forty years.”

That's an appropriate joke for this week’s Torah portion of Shemot, which includes the great incident of the burning bush. The truth is, that incident, while very famous, is also a very strange story. Which is appropriate for a different reason, because we are also coming to the end of the 2018 year, which has been a very strange year indeed.

It has been essentially impossible this last year to read or watch what was going on in the world without seeing very odd things happening, and while that’s probably always true, 2018 has seemed particularly notable for weirdness. As John Lennon memorably sang, “Nobody told me there’d be days like these…”

A lot of that strangeness originates here at home in America: trade wars with China—and, my goodness, Canada—American troops massed on the Mexican border to prevent an “invasion” by unarmed, impoverished Central Americans, a stock market going steadily up, then plunging hugely for months, then having its largest one day jump ever, a constant flow of stories about former government officials involved in various criminal activities, electoral fraud falsely alleged in many states but actually occurring in North Carolina, a Russian agent infiltrating the NRA, an ongoing war over facts and truth and the media, and all that oddness colored by a flow of provocative Tweets sent at all hours of the day and night. Strange days indeed.

There is also the tendency in our society now to see every man as potentially taking advantage of every woman. The mere accusation of that, not the proof, has destroyed careers and lives. As a society, we always overcorrect for misdeeds of the present and past, when women were—and are—exploited and very real complaints ignored or worse. But we are now trending the other way, in which every man is suspect in every relationship and dating has devolved into a kind of Russian roulette. Weird.

Internationally, dictators and authoritarian regimes are consolidating power in a way we haven’t seen in decades, in places as diverse as Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar. In Eastern Europe 19 different countries are considered to be sliding away from democracy these days. In Western Europe politicians who trumpet authoritarian responses to the very real immigration crisis there are taking office, while Great Britain is tortuously leaving the European Union, mostly over immigration issues. Strange days.

Around the world attacks on the press have accelerated from verbal to physical, with journalists arrested and even executed. And while human freedom, including freedom of speech, is under attack internationally and perhaps domestically, anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts have mushroomed here and abroad. We experienced the worst such attack in American history at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last month, and every authoritarian movement in the west has an anti-Jewish component to it. We Jews have always been closely identified with movements that work to create greater freedom, because for us it is always better to live in free societies that allow freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. We know authoritarians might protect us for a while but that could change whenever they decide to play the anti-Semitism card. Really free societies protect our rights to pray and live as we wish.

The oddity of some of these authoritarian movements—but by no means all—being both pro-Israel and anti-Semitic is a weird new phenomenon unique to today’s world.

And Anti-Semitism is also prominent in the #MeToo movement, where three of the leaders of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, have close association with Anti-Semites and have made not only anti-Zionist but Anti-Semitic statements. It’s enough to make you feel pretty darned uncomfortable with the whole thing.

And then last week, to make it even weirder, LeBron James, best basketball player on the planet and a very smart guy and enormously successful entrepreneur and business tycoon, tweets out rap lyrics about “getting that Jewish money.” He apologizes, saying he didn’t realize it wasn’t a compliment… Really? Weirder and weirder.

This Shabbat we read the great Torah portion of Shemot, first in the book of Exodus, and early on we are introduced to the single most important leader in the history of our people—indeed, in the history of Western Civilization. Moses will become the great liberator of the Israelites, the model for nearly every liberation movement ever after, and he will emerge as the lawgiver who transmits God’s great code of ethics, morality and ritual into a system that still forms the basis of all monotheistic belief and practice, not to mention the foundation of civilized law everywhere. And of course he is the one who helps forge a lost, polyglot group of slaves into a nation. Surely he can give us great lessons in what it takes to be a leader in these strange times.

Moses is born early in Shemot, and if this is our greatest figure, shouldn’t we be able to learn from his life how to create great leaders? Shouldn’t Shemot serve as a primer for a best-selling business book “Moses on Management” or “How to Raise a Heroic Child?”

And yet the more you study Moses’s career, the more you explore his character and methodology, the more you wonder how this ever came to be. Frankly, it’s very strange, too. For Moses’ greatness, while indisputable, is completely unpredictable based on any reasonable process for choosing or training a leader. You can make a better case that Moses’s birth, rearing, adolescence, and most of his adulthood should have led to a life of no real value.

Here are the plain facts of his life: Moses, the third child of slave parents, is born in the midst of an attempted genocide perpetrated against all Israelite boys. His mother hides him, no doubt shushing him constantly, until he is too loud to keep secret anymore. He is then sneakily abandoned in a little ark, saved from drowning or being eaten by crocodiles by the daughter of the king, who names him and then immediately hands him off to a wet nurse—actually, back to his slave mom who dumped him in the first place. When he reaches adolescence he’s suddenly brought to the Pharaoh’s palace and taught the basics of Egyptian court conduct, which he never really grasps. One day he sees a slave being beaten, a legal act, and instinctively reacts by killing the taskmaster, a kind of Egyptian cop. He then tries to bury his homicide victim in the sand. This is illegal even for a prince, and when he sees Israelites fighting each other the next day and tries to stop them they make it clear his murderous deed is known.

So Moses becomes a fugitive from justice, running away to the desert of Midian in the Sinai. Again, he becomes involved in an altercation and fights with some shepherds. This time, he picks the right side, and is brought into the non-Israelite household of a Midianite priest. He settles down with a wild desert woman, marries, has two kids, and is working for his father-in-law as a simple shepherd in an empty, barren, meaningless corner of the world.

Not much of a CV for a future world leader. Abandoned by his parents, a manslayer, a wanted fugitive from justice, employed in one of the most obscure places in one of the lowest occupations the ancient world offered. No prominent family, no prep schools, no excellent grades, no internships, no National Merit Scholarships, no Ivy League colleges, no law schools or MBA’s, no fellowships. Oh, and he was a very poor speaker, a chronic stutterer.

Yet this is the guy who God chooses to lead our people from slavery to freedom, from doubt and darkness to revelation and holiness. This is the one whom the Almighty decides will forge our nation and bring us to the entrance of the Promised Land.

The choice is so bizarre, so profoundly unlikely that when God speaks to Moses from that famous Burning Bush and tells him he will lead the campaign to “Let My People Go,” Moses himself can’t believe it. He argues vigorously that God is making a huge mistake, and that the Lord should choose someone else—anyone else, in fact.

So what was God thinking here? Why choose a black-sheep troublemaker like Moses when there were better bred, more skilled, more prominent candidates for leadership?

The answer lies in the fact that Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people… and that is a different kind of task, requiring different skills, than the leadership of any other group. What ultimately matters in Jewish leadership is not always the same things that matter in other kinds of leadership. And until we understand that crucial fact we will never understand the genius God demonstrated in picking Moses.

Of course, we know the stereotype of two Jews, three opinions, and four synagogues… but there is more here than that. For leadership of strong, self-motivated, energetic, committed people requires singular qualities. And Moses, in his odd path to the top, demonstrates all of them.

First, in order to lead Jews, a certain core belief is essential. Moses may not always show the best judgment, or present the calmest front in times of crisis. But throughout Shemot, and through his entire career, he remains true to his central values. He trusts in God. He knows right from wrong. When he sees injustice or persecution he acts. Moses has belief and he never loses it. In the face of terrible setbacks he always perseveres.

Second, to be a Jewish leader, you need passion. We have always been a passionate people: passionate about everything, from food to music to religion to justice to rights to Israel to sports. We are not always right, but we are always passionate. To lead such a group you must care deeply, and have the energy and the spirit to demonstrate that passion. Moses has a terrible temper, he is often outraged and sometimes fierce. But his passion must be respected.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, to become a successful Jewish leader, you must have goals, and continue to seek to achieve them no matter the odds and no matter the obstacles. It takes 10 plagues to free the Israelites, a great crossing of an impassable sea to reach freedom, and an incredible covenant of fire and smoke and drama at Mt. Sinai to become a people; and then it took 40 more years to get to the Promised Land. To lead Jews takes commitment, patience, and the ability to keep your eye on the real goals, without being distracted and dissuaded by the temporary setbacks. What was it David Ben Gurion said? In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles. Jewish leadership, in its essence, is the ability to pragmatically work to create what seem like miracles. Like a new congregation coming together in a couple of months.

And finally, leading Jews takes having the ability to grow and change, without abandoning your belief, losing your passion, or forsaking your goals. In the course of our Torah portion, and certainly throughout the rest of the Torah, Moses learns management. He delegates, he becomes an orator, he learns to organize groups, he learns how to motivate this complicated, difficult people. He never stops arguing, of course, even with God, especially with God, because he knows that what matters most is accomplishing what is right and good and holy.

Later, he even makes small compromises in the interests of peace… small compromises, mind you. Because the essence of Moses’s leadership is not compromise. It is belief, passion and being goal-oriented.

And isn’t that still the formula for true leadership, especially Jewish leadership?

May the lessons of Moses continue to inspire us, and teach us, not only in this parshah of Shemot, not only in our own exciting new congregation, not only in our Jewish community, but throughout our lives. For these are also the values that matter for each of us, particularly in weird times. And then, perhaps, we may be able to make this coming year just a little less strange, and a little more holy.

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