Thursday, 05 Feb 2015

Written by Rabbi Yuval Keren

When we look for a good leadership role-model we come across Moses. We sometimes conclude services with ‘Yigdal’, a poetic statement based on Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. It states: ‘Never arose another visionary like Moses’. Yet even Moses was not entirely flawless, even Moses needed help and guidance at times and even Moses failed at times.

When he first received his mission as he stood before the burning bush, he lacked the necessary confidence, and tools. He kept trying to shake off the heavy responsibility given to him. ‘The people would not believe me!’ … ‘Who shall I say sent me to them?’ ‘I am not a man of words!’1

God, who listened to his expressions of anxiety gave Moses the tools to cope with his leadership challenge. Here is a sign, and a miraculous staff. Have Aaron, your brother, as your speaker.

Later in his leadership Moses managed to discover his own inner qualities and had less need for the external aides. These extra aides not only failed to help him but at times became a hindrance. His brother Aaron challenged his leadership and the misuse of the staff that was the cause for denial of his entry into the Promised Land. The People of Israel who witnessed all the signs and wonders Moses produced in the name of God, continued to complain and rebel against leadership.

Isaiah who receives his mission in a vision, was also concerned about his leadership. “Woe is me; I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.2

God sent him an angel to perform a symbolic act of cleanliness and to give Isaiah the confidence he needed to carry out the difficult and thankless mission of bringing God’s words to the people.

We can learn from Moses and Isaiah that it is not enough to nominate great leaders. We must also give them the tools and means to carry out their task.

Later in life, Moses managed to establish and secure his leadership. There was little doubt that he was the leader to be followed, and God’s right hand. However, Moses remained humble throughout his years of leadership and did not use his power for personal gain. When Moses had his first leadership challenge by his own siblings, Miriam and Aaron, we are told: ” Vehaish Moshe anav meod” “‘The man Moses was very humble.’3 The Hebrew word ‘Anav’ is closely related to the word ‘Ani’ – poor. Moses was not only humble, he also never used his position for his own benefit and he therefore remained poor.

In our Torah portion we witness a very exciting family reunion between this great and humble leader and his father-in-law. The family reunion is very emotional but in no time at all Jethro transforms from a father-in-law into a methodical management consultant.

Stage 1: Jethro identifies the problem. Moses meets people from the crack of dawn till late at night.

Stage 2: Jethro gathers data. He interviews Moses and asks him why he has to sit all day. Moses explains that he needs to judge between people and teach them God’s laws.

Stage 3: Jethro formulates the problems. Moses will eventually wear himself out.4 One cannot but suspect that Jethro has a personal interest here. If Moses is busy all day,

when will he ever have time for his wife (Jethro’s daughter) and two children? If this carries on he will have to make the journey again all the way from Midian, and this time it will be to collect his daughter and her children.

This was not the only issue. By dedicating all his time to judging and teaching, Moses neglected some essential elements without which there is no effective leadership. Moses needed the time to think, to plan, to communicate with God, to prepare the people for the long journey, and to make sure that the next generation is ready for the challenges ahead.

Final Stage 4: Jethro devises a solution. Moses should establish a structured hierarchy of judges and teachers who will handle the smaller issues while the big cases will be referred to Moses.

Jethro suggested selection criteria for those to be nominated down the line. They need to be fearless of men but fearful of God, lovers of truth and haters of personal gain. In other words, Jethro builds the model of a judge in Israel on the qualities of Moses.

Why did it have to be Jethro who had to point out this problem to Moses, and why was he able to provide a workable solution? I suspect that others around Moses noticed how busy and stretched he was. Perhaps it was easier for a friendly outsider who had no personal involvement in the situation to highlight the flaws of the system and propose a solution.

There is little doubt that by his own actions Jethro contributed not only to the wellbeing of Moses, but also to the making of Moses as the greatest leader of all times.

What can we take away from the story of Moses as a leader and Jethro as a consultant?

  • We saw that a great leader needs tools, encouragement and support in order to carry out his or her leadership mission effectively;
  • A good leader needs to know how to delegate and empower rather than try and do everything by him or herself;
  • Leaders can sometimes get into bad leadership habits and they are not always aware of them;
  • The price of not recognising these habits could be very high both for the leader and for the community; and
  • Sometimes we need an outsider who has no stake in the situation to help us out of difficult situations.
  • I believe that individuals, communities and countries develop many good and some bad habits, which we need to face every once in a while.

    We are rapidly approaching the general elections in Britain. It is my hope that those who are elected to this challenging task should have something of Moses’ quality in them – fearless of the task, aware of their divine responsibilities, lovers of truth, and haters of personal gain.

    Rabbi Yuval Keren

    Ordained 2009


     1Based on Exodus Chapters 3 & 4
     2 Isaiah 6:5
     3 Num 12:3
     4 Exodus 18:18


    The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.