The endless volume of visual images and audio clips that are a part of our daily reality in a modern political season make it virtually impossible that a non-mediagenic personality could ever be elected to the high office of the presidency. It is sad but true that looks, charisma, and the ability to raise huge amounts of money matter at least as much in politics these days as do thoughtfulness and ideas, much less personal integrity. A seasoned, knowledgeable, and reflective candidate of either major political party will not necessarily see those qualities translate into votes, or allegiance. If you’re going to prevail in today’s political climate, you pretty much need to have a larger-than-life personality, and a more-than-healthy sense of self and self-importance. You have to have what to sell, and you have to be comfortable selling it– relentlessly.
Here in New York, the imminent arrival of Shabbat Haggadol and the festival of Passover are juxtaposed, in the rarest of ways, with a hotly contested New York presidential primary. It is rare for two reasons. First, New York presidential primaries are usually afterthoughts, serving to affirm a candidate’s nomination, rather than help decide it. And second, even given that there is a presidential primary only every four years, the relative lateness of Passover this year creates the impression that two very different worlds are colliding, one timeless, and the other very much of this time and place.
All of which has me thinking about Moses, that most humble and self-effacing of leaders.
From the earliest moments of his re-appearance on the Biblical scene as God’s choice to challenge Pharaoh, Moses not only professes no interest in the attention sure to come his way, but also shows no sense whatsoever that he is in any way worthy of the honor. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he asks. I’m just a stuttering shepherd, he protests, a wholly inappropriate choice to convey the will of the one true God to the most powerful leader of the ancient world, or to inspire my people to follow me.
According to one particularly sweet rabbinic legend, it is precisely Moses’ experience as a shepherd that “catches God’s eye,” as it were. God sees him carrying a tired lamb on his shoulders to a watering hole in the desert, and realizes that Moses is exactly the right person to shoulder the burden of a tired and dispirited people. In his own eyes, Moses is unworthy to lead. In God’s eyes, he is the perfect choice.
But throughout his prophetic career, indeed, to the very end, Moses remains the paradigm of a self-effacing leader, suffering the shortcomings of the Israelites as best he can, saving them from God’s wrath on more than one occasion, and never losing sight of the true meaning of his leadership– to make God’s redemptive power manifest in history for His people.
Back to today for a moment… A recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal asked a question that I have heard from many people. Are these five candidates for President the best that America has to offer? At such a critical juncture for America and its place in the world, are these the people whom we would want at the helm, getting that proverbial 3AM call?
It’s an easy question to ask, and an understandable one, but almost surely unfair. To seek national office in 2016 is to subject oneself and one’s family to the kind of 24/7 scrutiny that most mortals could not or would not endure. When everyone you meet has a phone with a camera and a voice recorder, waiting for you to say or do something careless that you cannot retract, not to mention the news media people themselves, with stories to come up with for a twenty-four hour news cycle, you have to ask yourself, in the words of a famous Mishnah, mah lanu ul’tzarah hazot? In essence, who needs that kid of grief? Why would any sane person run?
Add to that the fact that the private sector is a much more lucrative area of endeavor with far less pressure on the family, and then you realize that, in order to want to run for President of the United States, you have to REALLY want it. You have to feel in your bones that you can do that job, and do it better than anyone else running. Which means… you have to think an awful lot of yourself, and your abilities.
Which leads me back to Moses… Moses, whose name doesn’t even appear in the Haggadah, lest the reader mistake him for the hero of the story, as opposed to God. Moses, whom the Torah describes as anav mikkol adam… more humble than any other man. Moses, whose exact burial place is not disclosed, lest it become an idolatrous shrine– exactly the opposite of the mystique that is consciously created around our elected leaders.
Passover, among many other things, serves as a timely reminder that the truest and most authentic form of leadership, spiritual or political, need not be an exercise in ego, bombast, and pettiness. Moses was just the opposite… and there was no one like him.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.