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Why is selfless leadership so important? (Edited Transcript)

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What is it that holds people together? What is the key to nurturing and building successful connections between people? Marriage is a connection between two people – what is the secret to its success? Raising children and nurturing a family – what is the key to achieving satisfaction with this holy endeavour? And the same question applies to the building of any human organisation where people come together for a purpose, whether it is a school, a shul, a business or the very enterprise of holding together the Jewish People as a nation.

The answers to these question lie in this week’s Torah portion. Moses, nearing the end of his life, approaches G-d to appoint his successor. This seemingly insignificant episode is revealing. The simple act of coming forward and proactively securing the future wellbeing of the Jewish people speaks volumes about Moshe’s capacity to transcend self-interest and ego. The very idea of succession is a signifier that the enterprise – in this case, the Jewish people – is greater than one individual; that the leader is in fact there to serve the greater cause and not their own interests.

Incredibly, Moshe was not just concerned about solving the succession question – he was insistent on it being addressed as a matter of urgency. The verse says, “And Moshe spoke to G-d, saying…” (Numbers 27:15). Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains that extra word, “saying” tells us that Moses demanded an answer from G-d on the succession.

Also significant is the fact that Moshe’s request that G-d appoint a successor is made immediately after hearing of his imminent death. “And you will also be gathered to your people like your brother Aaron was gathered,” G-d tells him. (Numbers 27:13). It is telling that upon hearing confirmation that he would not merit to lead the people into the Land of Israel, and that he would pass away in the desert, Moshe’s immediate concern is for the future welfare of the people: “And let not the congregation of G-d be like sheep that do not have a shepherd,” he implores. (Numbers 27:17). Rashi comments that this attentiveness to the needs of the community before one’s own needs is a core characteristic of the righteous.

Moshe’s transcendence of narrow self-interest and his wholehearted commitment to the welfare of the people he serves is given further expression through another seemingly small incident. G-d instructs Moshe to appoint Joshua, saying, “And you shall rest your hand upon him.” (Numbers 27:18). Placing his hand on Joshua is a sign of his support and of the transfer of the leadership mantle. When Moshe carries out this instruction, however, the verse says, “And he placed his hands upon him” (Numbers 27:23). Quoting from the same Midrash, Rashi draws attention to the use of the plural – “hands”. He explains that Moshe went beyond the call of duty – beyond the literal letter of G-d’s request – placing both of his hands on Joshua’s head, and performing what must have been this emotional task with unbridled enthusiasm.

This generosity of spirit – this bold declaration that the cause is greater than the individual –  is especially noteworthy given the fact that, as the Midrash points out, Moshe had felt that his son, Gershom, would be an appropriate successor. Yet he was able to let go of his own hopes and dreams for his son to do what was right for the Jewish people.

There is another illustration of this selfless commitment to the good of the collective in next week’s parsha. G-d instructs Moshe to do battle with Midian in response to their aggression, and informs him that he will pass away straight after the battle. Moshe knew that by delaying the battle, he would prolong his life. Yet he carried out the instruction with speed and efficiency. He did not procrastinate, knowing full well that once this last important duty was completed he would have to prepare to pass from this world. Moshe was committed to the cause to his last breath.

The very final verse of the Torah, describing Moshe’s defining achievements, refers to “All that which Moshe did in the eyes of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:12). Rashi says the verse is referencing the moment he smashed the tablets, after coming down from the mountain and seeing the people dancing around the Golden Calf. Why is this the crowning moment of Moshe’s life? Rav Elya Meir Bloch offers an explanation. Moshe’s life mission was to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and bring them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Smashing the tablets was a declaration that the people were unworthy of receiving the Torah in their current state and that, by implication, his mission had failed. Rav Elya Meir explains that this demonstrated Moshe’s selflessness – he was prepared to publicly acknowledge his personal failure to carry out the task he was put on earth to perform, the cause he had invested his entire life in, simply because it was the right thing to do.

The thread running through all of these examples of Moshe’s selfless devotion to the collective is “lesheim shamayim” – everything he did was for the “sake of heaven”, for the greater good. For Moshe, building Am Yisrael, moulding the Jewish nation and leading it to fulfill its destiny, was never about serving his own personal interests. And this is the secret to building any successful enterprise. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, “Any community dedicated to heaven will endure, and one which is not dedicated to heaven will not endure.” (4:14).

“Dedicated to Heaven” means the capacity to transcend self for the sake of a greater cause. This is the secret to all of our relationships and to our connections with other people and the establishment of any grouping and organisation. In the case of marriage it is about husband and wife putting the marriage and each other’s welfare above their own personal welfare. In the case of family it’s about children, siblings, parents all working together for the greater good of the family and about being able to put aside their own personal narrow self-interest for the sake of the greater good and for the sake of Hashem. And the same applies to building a shul, school, a business organisation, and indeed for that matter building the great enterprise of the Jewish people. It’s about putting the welfare of the others, and of the greater cause, above our own personal interests; it’s about to putting aside our own narrow self-interest and working together for the greater good of the whole.

And, paradoxically, by serving the greater good, we are, in fact, serving our own best interests too. By putting others first and investing ourselves fully in our marriage, in our families, in our organisations, in our shuls and schools, in the betterment of the Jewish people and humanity, we can derive the greatest joy from these associations and connections with other people. By transcending self and working for a greater purpose, we too become great. And that is when we discover the abundant blessings of life and connection to others.

Posted on 05 July 2018 in Text, Transcript