Base fears or better angels: Levi Yitzchak on leadership (Chukat 5776)

It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness.

That’s right. Those trials – every one of them – is described in the sefer b’midbar, the book of Numbers. We’ve been reading it for several weeks now, with several more to go. This week’s portion, called chukat – “statute” – after a peculiar ritual that occupies its first chapter, includes the famous story in which Moses, faced with a demoralized, angry, and thirsty people, gets them water by striking a rock with a staff – though not before belittling and berating them. The water flowed…and Moses learned that his failure to glorify God in that moment cost him his chance to lead the people across the river to the Promised Land. It’s tragic, and year after year in Torah Study groups across the land, people come to Moses’ defense and express their belief that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. A momentary lapse in an otherwise stellar career, and God can’t cut Moses,  right hand man, a break?

Let’s set the question of proportionality aside and ask a different, and no less interesting one: what, exactly, did Moses do wrong? Two great commentators, Rashi and Ramban, famously disagree on this point. For Ramban, it was the words Moses spoke, and the way he spoke them, that cost him his place at the front of the line crossing the Jordan. Rashi thinks otherwise, and points to the smacking of the rock as the fateful moment.

Now, one of the great mental exercises our scholars have indulged in over the years is harmonizing seemingly irreconcilable texts. Rashi says one thing, Ramban another. They plainly disagree with each other, and can’t both be true. Into that situation walks the gifted teacher saying “not so fast. Hold the two opinions up to the light and turn them about. They’re not different at all.”

Tonight’s gifted teacher is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who lived from 1740 until 1809. Levi Yitzchak was renowned for his creativity and wisdom, and also for his deeply ingrained habit of seeing his people in the best possible light. That aspect of his character is actually central to this teaching, which is all about how leaders use words to motivate their people.

Levi Yitzchak sets out to prove that Rashi and Ramban are saying the same thing, and I think he succeeds. Here’s the teaching, in summary:

There are two paths a leader can take when trying to motivate his people. He can recall their highest values, appeal to their decency, and paint a picture of a world redeemed. Alternatively, he can berate and belittle them, dividing and blaming, appealing to their worst instincts, in the hopes of scaring them into submission. Good leaders, obviously, take the first path.

Choices have consequences. A leader who appeals to her people’s better angels gets results, and those results bring even more greatness. As Levi Yitzchak has it, when the people are at their best, the whole world comes into alignment. Power doesn’t need to be harshly projected; cooperation is the order of the day. Even inanimate objects are part of the story, their true nature revealed as they exist in balance with the people.

The other sort of leadership yields different results. Fear rules within the people, and so fear must be brought to bear externally as well. Power is maintained with an iron grip, and nature is quite literally beaten into submission.

So was Moses’ sin speaking harshly to the people, as Ramban holds, or smacking the rock with a stick, as Rashi believes? Yes, and yes. Zeh garam lazeh. The one caused the other.

Imagine an alternate universe in which Moses leads in that moment with calm and compassion. The people’s fear in the face of drought subsides as trust is built. They grow in stature and in righteousness. All Creation comes into alignment with them. And Moses turns to the rock and says, with his indoor voice: “O Rock! You were put here to give Israel water in this wilderness. Bring it forth.” And the water flows.

It’s a beautiful teaching, and a relevant one. All around us we see leaders of both types. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev helps us to understand their nature, and the consequences of following each.

Monday in Dallas, two Presidents of the United States wore the mantle of leadership in ways that would have made Levi Yitzchak proud. In his teaching, the good leader “reminds the people what it means to be a Jew: to know that your soul is hewn from God’s very throne.” Talk about an appeal to high ideals! In that light, listen to former President Bush at Monday’s memorial:

But Americans…have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals.

At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.

At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another. We recognize that we are brothers and sisters, sharing the same brief moment on Earth and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity.

At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.

President Obama followed with an apt scripture:

I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.”

That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.

….Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.

So many others rose to the occasion, leading with grace and seeking to grow a sense of unity and confidence in a people who are fractured and afraid. Chiefs of police, mayors, leaders of protest movements, clergy, ordinary people, parents, all trying to teach and lead with love.

And then there was Twitter, a platform uniquely suited to the sort of person who believes leadership is exercised by tearing down, belittling, assigning blame. We have leaders, or presumptive leaders, like that, too. To whom shall we listen? Who shall we follow?

May our leaders, and those who aspire to leadership, rise above appeals to fear, and lead, more and more, by reminding of what we strive to be.


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