Our parshah states that Moses sent emissaries to a foreign king, “on behalf of Israel” (Numbers 21:21). According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, this teaches us that true and authentic leaders always conduct themselves “on behalf of the people.” Many of us today, feel that there is a chronic paucity of great leadership in the world, that many nations are led today by politicians rather than by statesmen. This vacuum of leadership stems from the fact that we hardly see today leaders who place the public interest above their private interest. In his seminal work of political philosophy known as “The Social Contract,” 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about the difference between the “general will,” and one’s private interest. Similarly, the 20th century philosopher John Rawls spoke about “the veil of ignorance” – which is a concept encouraging us to opt for the best policy for the greater good of the nation, irrespective of our own individual interests.
Moses is the supreme example of a leader who put the people above himself. He abandoned a life of decadent luxury in the Pharaoh’s palace, in order to lead a group of slaves into the desert, an all-too-often thankless and frustrating ordeal. His was the life of disinterested service to the common good.
We have seen such leaders in the last century. David Ben-Gurion retired in the Negev, and lived in a small hut where it’s 120 degrees in the summer, worked the land with a shovel, and insisted that everyone calls him, one of the century’s greatest statesmen, only by his first name “David.” Menachem Begin lived in a small rent-controlled apartment. In his will, Begin asked for a regular funeral, without a guard of honor, and with no eulogies. Notice that these leaders are immortal in the collective consciousness of the nation, whereas some of the other leaders were easily forgotten. When it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 70th birthday, his disciples asked the Rebbe what he would like as a gift for his birthday. His prompt response was: “I would like 71 more Chabad centers around the world by my 71st birthday!” When Rabbi Dr. Yosef Burg, one of Israel’s leading Modern-Orthodox figures was on his death bed, he asked his son: “Abraham, who will take care of the Jewish people?!”
Today we live in an era of hyper-individualism, with its manifold blessings for personal autonomy, but also with some distinct challenges for our societal well-being. Can we, as a society today, still merit such towering self-less leaders in the caliber of a Moses, a Ben-Gurion, or a Menahem Begin? Our sages teach: “The face of the generation is akin to a dog’s face.” By this they mean that many a politician today are akin to a dog who runs in front of his owner in the street, but once the dog reaches a juncture, the dog pauses, and waits for his owner to tell him which turn to take. Analogously, many politicians pretend to lead, but all-too-often they stop to look at the polls, and lead by the polls in order to be popular. Great leaders don’t lead by the polls, they lead by vision and by compass, and by conscience. They answer to history and destiny, rather than to today’s polls or tomorrow’s elections. Churchill was called a “war monger,” Ben-Gurion was accused of facilitating a second Holocaust when he declared Israeli statehood, Begin and Rabin were called “traitors,” because they were willing to sacrifice for the prospect of peace. Our world thirsts for those who, in the words of our parshah, lead “on behalf of their people,” rather than on behalf of their ego, bank accounts, or other such personal privileges.