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Va'eira(Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Lessons in Leadership

As we endure yet another election season, leaders and leadership are on our minds – as they have been since the birth of our nation.

Of all the leaders the Jewish People has enjoyed or endured, Moshe was one of the greatest, and one of the most reluctant. From the outset, Moshe doubted both his suitability and his ability to speak for the people, or to the people. Words did not come easily to him. What sort of leader would he be without eloquence and elocution? God had to cajole and practically plead with Moshe, and to appoint his brother Aharon as his assistant, to convince Moshe to accept the job. Even so, Moshe continued to question his own leadership, and occasionally tried to return his mandate.

As the story of the exodus unfolds, we might wonder if Moshe actually had “the right stuff” for the job: As he feared, upon arriving in Egypt, the Israelites rejected him, and Moshe questioned how he would manage to sway Pharaoh if he was unable to convince even the Israelites. (6:12) Perhaps Aharon, the older brother, the man who spoke the language of the people and to whom they turned for counsel and comfort, would have been a better choice? Apparently not: When push finally came to shove and Aharon was forced to take the reins in Moshe’s absence – the result was the Golden Calf. Aharon had charisma, eloquence and the common touch, but he could not stare down an angry mob.

There is, however, a third leadership model to be found in this week’s Torah portion; mentioned in passing, it slips by almost unnoticed. In the midst of Moshe’s repeated attempts to demur (6:12 and 6:30) we find a short, select genealogy of those destined to leave Egypt, culminating in Aharon’s nuclear family. This genealogy is intended to establish Aharon’s credentials, but the list is not what we would have expected. Describing Aharon’s family, a unique formulation is used: Not only is Aharon’s wife Elisheva mentioned, which is somewhat out of the ordinary, but so is her father, and, most unusual of all, her brother:

Aharon married Nachshon's sister, Elisheva daughter of Aminadav. She bore him Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. [6:23]

Noting this anomalous formulation, Rashi explains that Elisheva’s brother Nachshon is included in order to teach us a life lesson: When choosing a spouse, bear in mind that the children will inherit personality traits from their mother’s brothers.

What do we know about Elisheva’s brother Nachshon? He, too, was a leader, but his leadership differed from that of Moshe or Aharon: While Moshe was reticent, Nachshon was a descendant of the charismatic Judah, known for being direct, even impetuous. While Aharon led with words, Nachshon led with deeds: He was the first of the tribal leaders to bring an offering the day the Tabernacle was consecrated, because, the Midrash tells us, he had been the first to leap into the sea. Pursued by the Egyptians, with their backs to the water, Nachshon was the first to take a leap of faith, leading the Israelites into the Red Sea before it split to clear a pathway for their escape. (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7) Nachshon is the prototype for commanders who lead by example, jump first into the fray and cry, “aharai!” – “Follow me!”

For his bravery and faith, for leading by example, Nachshon was rewarded the day the Tabernacle was consecrated. Once again, he was first.

But something else happened on that day: Two of Aharon’s sons were consumed by a heavenly fire. Without waiting for instructions or permission, they brought an unsanctioned offering. When viewed through the prism of Rashi’s haunting comments, we begin to see their impetuous behavior from a new perspective: They had, indeed, inherited their uncle Nachshon’s personality traits, but unlike him, they had misused their gifts. To be sure, there is a time and a place for this type of leadership, but Nadav and Avihu were led astray by this same impetuousness, and were consumed by their own desire to blaze new trails. On the very same day Nachshon was rewarded, his impressionable nephews followed his example, leaping forward – with disastrous results.

This, then, is the third model of leadership in Parashat Va’era: Nachshon was charismatic, idealistic, strong and brave, but lacked self-restraint. His style of leadership was exciting, energizing – and somewhat dangerous. Aharon was eloquent and popular, but he was also non-confrontational, and lacked the strength to lead. In the final analysis, Moshe’s hesitation and humility make him more attractive as a leader. He was never interested in the spotlight or the trappings of leadership; he assumed the role thrust upon him out of a sense of responsibility. He was convinced, after some effort on God’s part, that no one else could get the job done. Moshe made up in competence what he lacked in charisma.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report January 26th 2015

For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/01/audio-and-essays-parashat-vaera.html

January 12, 2015

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