In a time of Trouble we Look to Moses for Wise Leadership

May 28, 2012
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 28th May 2012

One government is overturned in France, another in Greece, and in Britain the coalition loses votes. These are just the latest casualties of the political turmoil that has hit, among others, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Finland and Ireland in the past year. A perfect storm is in the making: financial uncertainty, economic downturn, government cuts, rising unemployment, and a future that looks less clear the more we try to fathom it.

If we are to negotiate the coming years safely, we may need a new kind of leadership. To put it more precisely, we need the rediscovery of an ancient kind of leadership that has rarely been given the prominence it deserves. I mean the leader as teacher.

It's an idea at the heart of Judaism. The story, though never set out explicitly, lies just beneath the surface of the Mosaic books. The surface narrative, told in the books of Exodus and Numbers, is about miracles. Moses leads the Israelites to freedom, and all along the way there are signs and wonders: ten plagues, the division of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock. Whatever the people need, heaven sends.

Which European leader today would not relish the wonder-working powers of a Moses? Budget deficit? Unpopular cuts? How about just a little miracle, an overnight increase in gold reserves, a new oil field, or the next world-changing communications technology? Surely that’s not too much to ask.

What makes the Hebrew Bible so fascinating and unpredictable is that it tells us that miracles don’t solve the problem. Moses does more of them than any leader before or since, and they don’t help. Yes, they end the immediate crisis – the division of the Red Sea allows the people to get to the other side – but not the long term one. The people don’t change. They remain querulous, quarrelsome, ungrateful, unstable, ready to despair at the slightest setback, unfit for the responsibilities of freedom.

The real radicalism of the Mosaic books is to be found not in Exodus and Numbers with their miracles, but in Deuteronomy, a book with no new miracles at all. It sounds unexciting, a series of speeches given by Moses in the last month of his life, but it is to me one of the great texts of all time. It is the birth of a radically new form of leadership. Moses stops performing wonders and becomes instead a teacher, an educator of the nation.

Patiently he talks the people through the challenges that lie ahead. What he has to say is deeply counterintuitive. The real challenge will not be poverty but affluence. Slavery is easy, freedom is hard. National identity is more important than power. Memory is more significant than history. Education will be the most consequential of all: what parents teach children. What will determine the future of the people won’t be strength, military or demographic, but the values and ideals that permeate society: justice, compassion, welfare, social responsibility, love of neighbour and stranger and care for the poor, the lonely and disenfranchised. Don’t even think you can survive without these. You can’t. And of course, he was right.

The great leaders have been teachers, among them Roosevelt, Churchill, Ben Gurion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. They spent inordinate amounts of time reading, thinking, learning, writing, studying the past and its lessons the better to understand the future and its challenges. And then they taught. They made speeches, they wrote articles and books, coined vivid phrases and told stories so that people would understand the long journey that lay ahead and the sacrifices they might have to make along the way.

They appealed to people’s altruism. They made sure that the sacrifices were borne equally and that everyone contributed. They had no patience for people intent on their own advantage at the cost of others. They didn’t seek miracles or make promises they couldn’t keep. They knew that the only way successfully to negotiate change is to educate the people, trust them, empower them, and speak to the better angels of their nature. They taught. And they were tireless.

We need our leaders to be less clever, more wise; less fixated on tomorrow’s headlines than on the next generation’s prospects; unafraid to shame those who take but do not give; and willing to educate, educate, educate. Jews call Moses not our hero, liberator or prophet but rabbenu, “our teacher.” Leadership does not come higher than that.