What do Nations Need More? The Leadership of a Prophet or a Priest


President Obama once said that the difference between him and Martin Luther King was that King was an inspirational prophetic leader and he, Obama, was a political leader. In biblical and rabbinic terms the Obama model compares with the functions of the priesthood that lead the earthly institution of the Temple’s sacrificial cult. After the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E., the rabbinic class replaced the priesthood as the institutional and legal authority.

This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) shines a light on these two modes of leadership and it’s all about Aaron and not Moses. Thirty times Aaron’s name appears. Moses is virtually absent except for three inferences.

Commentators explained Moses’ absence in a number of ways. One Midrash reminds us that God was preparing to destroy the people after the incident of the golden calf.

If God was to be so consumed by righteous rage and indignation to destroy the people, then Moses told God to destroy him too and to remove his name from the “Book.” Moses couldn’t conceive of his life without his people.

Stunned, God asked: “Moses, my beloved prophet, could you really stand to have your name taken out of this Book?”

“Yes,” Moses said “if it means saving my people.”

So God took Moses’ name out of this parashah to test the prophet’s humility and sincerity. Moses passed the test and God forgave the people of their greatest sin.

The parashah shines a light on the differences in two leadership styles as exemplified by Moses and Aaron.

Moses was the charismatic prophet – Aaron the institution-bound High Priest.

Moses needed no special clothing as the leader to reflect his authority – Aaron wore the “sacral vestments” as a visible sign of the dignity of his office.

Moses was willing to challenge God – Aaron would never do so. Instead, Aaron was encumbered by institutional and traditional constraints.

Moses broke new ground, met God on the mountain, forged a new world based upon a vision that was yet to be created – Aaron was contained, measured, conservative, and conventional.

Moses was dramatic and he defied custom – Aaron’s world changed slowly if at all.

Moses created a legal system from scratch – Aaron shunned disorder and chaos choosing instead to follow in detail what had been passed along to him.

Moses’ effect was inspirational revealing a soul that reached for the stars and communed with God. There was no one like him before, then, or since.

The question I’ve been pondering in light of this week’s Torah reading that contains no direct mention of Moses’ name, and in light of the vagaries inherent in the Trump era is this: What do people and nations need more – The prophet or the priest?

If truth be told we need both but in delicate balance.

Without Moses’ prophetic zeal there would be no vision nor any hope for an inspired, just, compassionate, and peaceful world.

Without Aaron, there would be little stability and order. Without law, humankind would succumb to the worst excesses of evil, avarice, greed, and selfishness.

The three times God addresses Moses by inference in this portion offer additional insight into what makes for wise leadership.

The first says: “V’atah t’zaveh et b’nai Yisrael… – You shall command the children of Israel…” (Exodus 27:20)

We need strong leaders to be confident enough to take command when necessary. However, a wise leader does not engage constantly and at every opportunity.

The second says: “V’atah hakrev eleicha et Aharon achicha v’et banav ito mitoch b’nei Yisrael l’chahano li… – You shall bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with you into the midst of the children of Israel…” (Exodus 28:1)

We need leaders that understand that they cannot effectively lead alone. A wise leader does tzimzum, contracts within oneself enough to allow others to step forward and lead as partners. Such a leader delegates authority to those who have expertise.

The third says: “V’atah t’dabeir et kol chochmei lev asher mileitiv ruach chocham… – And you shall speak to all those wise in heart and filled with the spirit of wisdom…” (Exodus 28:3).

The wise leader presumes that others too are wise.

Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership styles taken together include the virtues of vision, wisdom, humility, moral rectitude, a love of truth, a love of humanity, and a respect for the dignity of every human being.

The reason that the Trump era is so confusing is because the President is not a prophet because he is incapable of transcending himself and empathizing with the “other.”

Nor is he a priest because he can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and he is utterly unfamiliar with and not curious about learning the rules of the game and how the government actually works.

So, what do we citizens do?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the civil rights movement of the 1960s gave the American liberal Jewish community its moral voice.

Is this not what is now occurring not only for the Jewish community but for all reasonable people (regardless of political party) of all faiths, cultures, races, national backgrounds, and gender identities?

This engaged moral activism that we are seeing everywhere offers me both comfort and hope. This will have to suffice for now.

Shabbat shalom.