William Hamilton

Nonsense and good sense

“It will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking.  I also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well.”  Britain’s biggest winner this week, Jeremy Corbyn has proven instrumental in normalizing anti-Semitism among progressives.  Although he professes that his contempt for Israel is not contempt for Jews, his reliable and persistent distaste for the nation state of the Jewish People both illustrates and legitimizes today’s leftist anti-Semitic mind.

Leadership matters.  When it is troubling, alarming, or failing, what are we to do?  Consult sources of wisdom that specialize in troubling, alarming, and failed leadership.  There is no better biblical book for such advise than the Book of Numbers.  Within its pages we find that progress along the arc of the moral universe often presents reversals and misadventures.

In general the Torah runs counter to classical hero narratives. Instead of the young lad who is raised among peasants to discover that he is royalty, Moses is raised in the palace to discover he belongs with the slaves.  Unlike mythic stories that are fated to inevitable outcomes, the Five Books of Moses conclude with the unreachable Promised Land.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elegantly points out why the Book of Numbers casts Israel as the anti-hero.  Instead of struggling to defeat relentless external forces, Judaism’s internalizes the challenge.  “By attributing its successes to God and its failures to itself, the Israel of the Bible knows that its fate is in its hands” Rabbi Sacks continues. “It knows that the real battle is ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there.’  If it is victorious against destructive and dysfunctional drives it will be victorious against its enemies.”

Moses hits rock bottom in this week’s portion.  He cries to God, “Why have you done bad to your servant…to set the burden of this entire people on me…And if this is how you treat me, kill me” (Num. 11:11,15).  Moses is so self-encased in despair that he uncharacteristically speaks in the first person singular successively throughout this chapter.  How does God restore him from the brink?  By showing him how his leadership has mattered.  By enabling him to glimpse his spirit being transferred onto the lives of 70 elder-statesmen (Num. 11:17).  70 is a telling biblical number with both internal and external implications.  Internally, within the text itself, the sages point to 70 faces of the Torah to illustrate the richness of our sacred text that yields its secrets when we need them most.  Externally, when presenting the Torah’s universally expansive lessons the Torah points outward toward 70 nations of the world.

If you want to know whether you can trust a leader, look at where she or he places responsibility for problems.  Hate-inciting leaders blame others for the bad while taking personal credit for the good.  Hope-inspiring leaders – recognizing the difference between nonsense and good sense – bring humble gratitude to others for the good while taking personal responsibility for the bad.

Our rabbis imagine God reflecting, “When I am gracious with decent people, they respond with gratitude and humility.  When I am gracious with wicked people, they respond with arrogance” (Talmud, Hullin 89a).  May the leaders who express humble gratitude earn our trust.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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