Chukat | What is the most important characteristic of a leader?
Updated: Apr 20
What separates a Mandela from a Zuma? Or a Nixon from a Lincoln? What is the key to great leadership? And this is not only a question for presidents and prime ministers. It’s for all of us. We are all called upon to play leadership roles in one way or another. Some people have official positions within society but everyone is involved, in influencing and leading the people around them in some way. We play leadership roles in our families, amongst our friends, in our communities, in our business or other kinds of organisations and in society in general. What is the secret of being a good leader? This is a question that we all need to address in one way or another.
Judaism answer to this question is clear – values. Principles and ethics that are stuck to no matter what the temptation, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how hard the going gets. Great leaders do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
The Jewish People have, like the rest of humanity, have had good leaders, and some bad leaders. But for the forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt – the crucial years in which a scattered, traumatised group of slaves were moulded into a proud nation – we were blessed by G-d to have three people at the helm who embodied good, strong, principled leadership: Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the passing of Miriam and Aaron towards the end of that forty-year period, and it’s therefore an appropriate time to reflect on their leadership – on what made them great leaders, and what we can learn from their example.
Moses, Aaron and Miriam were siblings, but their leadership styles and respective strengths were different. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, their unique leadership was represented by the three distinct miracles that G-d bestowed in the merit of each – the miracles that took care of the physical needs of the Jewish people during their journey in the desert.
The Talmud (Taanit 9a) says that the miraculous well of water that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their travels was given in the merit of Miriam; the miraculous “Clouds of Glory” that provided them with protection from the elements and cover from their enemies was given in the merit of Aaron; and the manna that fell from heaven and kept the Jewish people fed – always the most important part of any Jewish journey – was given in the merit of Moses.
Rabbi Hirsch notes how the famous verse in Michah (6:8), “What does G-d require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk modestly before your G-d?” is juxtaposed with another verse in Michah mentioning Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. He explains that these leaders epitomise justice, kindness and modesty respectively. He also demonstrates how the three great miracles correspond with the three primary attributes that Moses, Aaron and Miriam possessed – the values that each of them lived and led by.
Moses, the great teacher and transmitter of Torah – the Divine laws that sustain our lives and give shape and meaning to our existence – is connected to the manna, the heavenly bread that sustained and nourished the nation. So too, from a moral and spiritual point of view the Torah’s commandments, principles and laws form our basic sustenance and nourishment. Just as no person can survive without food, we cannot survive spiritually with the Torah. In this context the value of justice has a very wide meaning and includes all aspects of the Torah’s mitzvot and they govern our lives.
Aaron’s life was especially devoted to peace. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah.” The Midrash relates how Aaron would go out of his way to make peace between people, reconciling friends who were feuding, husbands and wives who were at odds with each other, and litigants who were at each other’s throats. Aaron was about making the world into a kinder and gentler place, a place where people relinquish their pursuit of self and are happy to sacrifice in the name of love and kindness. As the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – Aaron was also the person who brought “peace” between the Jewish nation and G-d Himself, most notably on Yom Kippur. Aaron dedicated his life to making the world a kinder, gentler, more hospitable place – which is why he is associated with the Clouds of Glory, which through their protective cover, did the same for the Jewish people as they journeyed through the harsh desert.
Rabbi Hirsch explains that the defining characteristic of Miriam was her unpretentious integrity and modesty. Throughout her life, Miriam quietly devoted herself to leading the Jewish people, and indeed saved us at crucial times. According to the Midrash, it was Miriam, together with her mother Yocheved, who was instrumental in rescuing the lives of so many Jewish baby boys who had been condemned to execution by Pharoah. And it was Miriam, who, after her parents had chosen to separate as a result of Pharaoh’s decree, persuaded them to get back together, whereupon Moses was born. She was also instrumental in saving Moses’s life, and ensuring that he was raised in the palace of Pharaoh, which set in motion his rise to leading the Jewish People and liberating them from their oppressors. Again and again, we see how Miriam’s crucial orchestration behind the scenes changed the course of Jewish history. And the well – whose life-giving waters are beneath the surface, hidden from view – is therefore a fitting representation of Miriam’s approach to leadership.
We can learn a profound lesson on leadership from the example set by these three great Jewish leaders. It is a lesson that applies to each and every one of us. Whether or not we hold official leadership positions, we are all leaders. Whether or not we realise it, we all exert great influence among our families, our friends, our communities, the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
The lesson we learn from Moses, Aaron and Miriam is that great leadership is rooted in values. A great leader knows which values to prioritise, and lives and leads in accordance with those values.
Values inform a leader’s overall vision for society. But they also give them the ability to navigate the pressures of leadership. Leaders are lobbied and pressured and pulled in different directions by different people. There is the temptation to please, to take the path of least resistance. There is the confusion of not knowing what to do or which direction to take. Values give a leader a moral compass, a sense of true north, a set of priorities. From those priorities, a leader finds the strength and clarity to be able to do what is right.
Moses, Aaron and Miriam were animated by their values, and it was these values that gave direction not just to them personally, but to the entire Jewish people. Their values are the Torah’s values – the values that bring G-d and G-dliness into the world, that each one of us in our capacity as leaders can use to make the world a better place. These values give us purpose, they give us direction, and they give us stability.
They also give us a legacy. It is significant that the legacy of Moses, Aaron and Miriam continues to this day. To this day, we strive to live in accordance with their values: with Moses’s commitment to Torah justice; with Aaron’s dedication to peace and loving-kindness; with Miriam’s unassuming integrity and bravery.
By emulating their example – within our families and communities, in our daily interactions and places of work – we can create a legacy of our own. Through commitment to the core, sacred values of Torah, justice we can discover not just direction and purpose, but eternity.