What makes a leader great? It is easy to be a leader in good times, when there are no troubles on the horizon; or to tend the flock, when there is no need to correct their course. A great leader makes his or her mark in difficult times when circumstances test them.
In a midrash on this first the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nechamta) which follow Tisha b’Av, we see an anecdotal reflection on what made Isaiah a great prophet: “Isaiah said: ‘I was at leisure in my beit midrash (House of study – apparently, the author’s reflection on what Isaiah was doing before God’s calling), and I heard the voice of God, who said: Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ (Isaiah 6:8) I have already sent the prophet Micah and they smote him on the cheek. I sent Amos and they called him a “stutterer” (a word play on his name), so whom shall I send. Immediately, Isaiah volunteered, saying: ‘Here I am, send me.’ God said: ‘Isaiah, my children are troublesome and stubborn. If you take this job upon yourself, you will be scorned and beaten by your people; if you are unwilling to bear [this burden], don’t take this mission upon yourself.’ Isaiah replied: ‘Even so [I want the job], [as Isaiah said:] I gave my back to the floggers and my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.’ (Isaiah 50:6) So, am I not fit to take the position?’ God responded: ‘You love righteousness’, namely, you love to make My children righteous, And ‘you hate wickedness’, namely, you dislike condemning them as wicked. This is what makes you the best person for the job. In the end, other prophets were blessed to offer single words of comfort to the people, but you will be blessed to offer them double words of comfort, like: ‘Nahamu, nahamu, ami – Comfort you, comfort you, My people. (Isaiah 40:1)” (Adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 10:2)
What makes a great leader? A great leader is a person who is willing to stand up to the people when they do what is wrong and to empathize with them and represent them when they need an advocate. Very few of us have the mettle for this combination of roles. Those who do are heroic and this is why we look up to the likes of Moses and Isaiah. Both knew to be stern when necessary, to advocate for the weak and needy, to chastise the nation’s leaders when they went astray, and to stand before God in defense of their people. Only such a leader can truly bring comfort to his/her people.