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Vayelech(Deuteronomy 31)

The Jewish Meritocracy

In this week's portion, Moses passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua. It's a shame that Korach is not alive to see this. His rebellion in the desert was a complaint about Moses' supposed nepotism - Moses is the leader, his brother Aaron is the High Priest, etc. But when Moses hands out the biggest position of all, that of his successor, it goes to Joshua - a complete outsider, with no family or political connections. He is simply the best person for the job.

We see something similar with Saul when he is appointed as the first king of Israel. He comes from nowhere. The prophet Samuel is told by God to appoint him, but no one - Samuel included - has ever heard of him.

What Jews value in a leader is very different than what one sees in the rest of the world. A leader is not chosen for his oratory. If Moses had needed to debate Obama, he would have stood no chance. He is not chosen for how much he appeals to the electorate, or that "wow" factor that plays so well on the nightly news.

A Jewish leader is chosen for very different reasons. He is chosen for his humility. Moses and Saul had something in common: Neither was interested in the job. And that's what made them the ideal candidates. Because it's so hard for a leader to distinguish between his desire to serve the people and his desire to serve himself. The desire for honor and power are two of the strongest forces known to mankind and it is so easy to be seduced. If a leader has these desires before he even gets to office, he'll struggle all the more so once he's there.

Moses and Saul had the quality of humility, which meant that they had no interest in the power or the honor that came with their position. Once there, they were committed solely to serving the nation. Democracy has many, many advantages. But one of its great failings, almost wherever one looks, is that self-serving people are the most likely to reach the top.

The Sages tell us why Joshua merited to become the leader: He would stay behind in the study hall at night and tidy the room. It was not beneath his dignity to do this because it was done in service of the nation. He did what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, no matter what people might think.

Now that's a leader. It's a shame we don't get that nowadays.

Published: September 27, 2008

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