There is a quaint and venerable position in the United Kingdom, one among very many, which is called the Poet Laureate. By tradition, this is a man who is considered to be the best poet of his generation and who is awarded this title by an admiring monarch and government so that they can write stirring poetry for important national events. Previous holders of the office include the magnificently bearded Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the strange Cecil Day-Lewis, the wonderful Sir John Betjeman whose immortal line, Come gentle bombs and fall on Slough, will long be remembered; the tortured Ted Hughes, the voluble Andrew Motion, and the current laureate and first ever woman to hold the post, Carol Ann Duffy..
Yet for me the poet who should have been made Poet Laureate instead of Andrew Motion is my poetic hero, Roger McGough, whose poetry for adults and children is brilliant and who does not take himself seriously at all, which most other poets seem to do.
One of my favourite poems of his is called The Leader, and it goes like this:
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee, I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?
Now, I happen to think that is rather funny, but it also has a serious side to it as well; being a leader is not easy, leaders do not automatically have all the answers, and sometimes the best leaders are those who consult with others, who take advice about what is the best thing to do in a variety of different situations.
This Shabbat, we start to read the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, which in many ways contains more details about the leadership of Moses and the demands that were made on it than any other of the five books.
In the first Sidra, Moses has to take a census of the people, and once he has discovered how many of them there are, he has to organise them into a proper camp, both for war and for peace. For war, because they are going to have to face many enemies, and fight some of them as they journey towards the Promised Land; and for peace, because they have to be structured round their Tabernacle, the place of worship which they set up for the veneration and praise of God when they were wandering in the desert.
This all sounds very good and hopeful, but what we know, and Moses doesn’t, is that it is going to be full of heartache and disappointment. The Israelites are going to get depressed, they are going to become fed up, they are going to criticise Moses and Aaron, rebel against their authority, talk about going back to Egypt, and lose faith after the spies return from their tour of the land of Israel and tell them that they will never make it their own. As a punishment, the entire generation of those who had been slaves in Egypt are doomed to die in the desert, and only those born in freedom will go into the land that God had promised to their ancestors.
Worst of all, Moses and Aaron will be punished by God for not doing what God told them to do at the scene of another rebellion, and in spite of the fact that they were under great pressure at the time they will also be denied the privilege of leading their people into the land flowing with milk and honey.
This is in the future, however, and it is probably just as well, because we might otherwise be tempted to ask the difficult question – If Moses had known everything that lay ahead of him at this stage in his life, would he have gone on, or would he have taken early retirement?
I am sure, human nature being what it is, that if Moses had been like most other people he would have called for Joshua at this stage, given him semikhah and wished him good luck and said ‘I’m going to take a well-earned rest.’
The only thing is, Moses was not, according to the Torah, like most people, he had a mission, he had a sense of duty, and even though it placed a heavy burden on his shoulders and caused him enormous pain, he was determined to stick with it, no matter what. He was called by God to be a leader, and there could be no turning back.
In a well-known Hasidic meditation there is a phrase: If God has granted you the privilege of being a leader in Israel, do not rebuke your people with an angry heart, but with a soft tongue. For Israel is a holy congregation, blessed of the Eternal One.
That is a wonderful thought, but it is certainly not the attitude that Moses seems to have taken; he shouted regularly at the Israelites, and lost his temper too; some of the rabbis criticised him for this, but we could just as easily argue that if he hadn’t done it, his people would have walked all over him, and he would have been prevented from fulfilling his mission.
We could say that being a leader involves doing difficult things that no one else wants to do, making demands of others that no one else is prepared to make, and if the need arises, accepting that not everyone will love you – because if there is just one thing that every leader knows – as Moses surely did – it is that you cannot stand in the front of a crowd and have everybody love you all the time, or even some of the time.
Happily, for all our sakes, there are different sorts of leaders, and different sorts of leadership. There are those like Moses, great figures who achieve things that are remembered long after they are gone, and others, who do things on a much smaller scale, but whose more limited successes are just as valuable and important. I have always believed that one of the most significant signs of a leader is being committed to a goal and trying to encourage others to be committed to it too; in Judaism it is often not the rabbis, the official leaders, who set this example, it is the Jews in the pews, the non-professionals, who everyone else can easily identify with, who do what they do with passion and feeling, and who can pass these emotions on to others. If this is right, then all of us have the potential to be leaders, teachers and motivators, inspiring our fellow Jews to be more committed to their faith and its practices in every aspect of their lives.
There is one further lesson that we can learn about leadership from the first parashah of the book of Numbers, the need to be humble, the need to know that being a leader is not something that you do to have power, or position, or authority, because if you seek these things you will inevitably have none of them.
When Moses organised the Israelites into a structured camp for the first time, he arranged them into the form of a square, with three tribes on each of the four sides. What was in the centre of the camp? What was in the innermost part of the square?
You might think that it would be Moses, the leader of the Israelites, the most important person in the camp who had to be the most protected. You would be wrong. It was not Moses, it was the Ark of the Covenant, the box containing the two tablets of stone on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. It was that, the symbol of God’s presence, of God’s love for the Israelites, and of God’s commitment to them that was at the heart of the camp. It was this that was the most precious, that had to be protected at all costs. All of us who try to be leaders need to remember the lesson that this teaches us every day of our lives; it is not who we are, or what we are, that really matters, it is what we do, and the One we do it for. That is the greatest truth for a leader to learn – and it is the one that none of us should ever forget.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh (ordained LBC 1986)