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Moses for President

Moses begged G-d to find another person to perform the daunting task of leading the Israelites to freedom. But once he agreed to do so, he succeeded brilliantly.
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February 29, 2024
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Not thrilled with the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch? You are far from alone. A Reuters poll found that two out of three Americans were “tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections and want someone new.”  

For the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the ideal leader is a “philosopher king” – someone who possesses outstanding political skills and an abiding appreciation for the truth. The perfect candidate has no desire to serve in office, and does so purely out of patriotic duty. Among the leader’s preferred qualities are integrity, courage, a love of learning, temperance, selflessness, and a good memory.  

What, you may be wondering, is so crucial about memory? It is the key to being able to develop astute judgement based on a lifetime of experience.  Should memory begin to fade, it is time to turn over responsibility to a younger generation, a lesson that a number of recent political and judicial luminaries might have taken to heart.

Looking for that ideal candidate? Try Moses.  

Moses begged G-d to find another person to perform the daunting task of leading the Israelites to freedom. But once he agreed to do so, he succeeded brilliantly. If Shakespeare was correct that some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them, Moses was in the last category.  It wasn’t his idea or ambition to become a history-altering prophet, singled out by G-d to be the savior of the Jewish people, but that is what he became.  

And, as the ancient Greeks hoped for in a leader, Moses was able to grow into the job, gaining wisdom and learning from his mistakes.  When Korah told Moses that “You have gone too far!” (Numbers 16:3), Moses took seriously the admonition that he had raised himself above his community.  And when his father-in-law Jethro implored Moses to delegate judicial authority, ceding control to trustworthy deputies, Moses did exactly that.  Finally, when Moses realized that he was too old to continue in power, he addressed the Israelites, telling them that “I can no longer be active” (Deuteronomy 31:02), and graciously stepped down in favor of Joshua, his long-time mentee.

When Moses realized that he was too old to continue in power, he addressed the Israelites, telling them that “I can no longer be active,” and graciously stepped down in favor of Joshua, his long-time mentee.

Not that Moses was perfect. Are there any leaders who are?  But even after losing his temper and striking the rock twice, Moses seemed to have accepted the mystifyingly harsh penalty – that he would be allowed to view the promised land but never enter it – with remarkable magnanimity.   

So, what happens if we elect someone without the judgment, effectiveness, and humility of Moses? Will disaster necessarily ensue?  In recent decades, scholars have called into question the once popular “Great Man Theory” – a proposition that on occasion extraordinary individuals come along and change the course of history. They now typically believe that even giants such as James Watt, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers were the servants of history rather than its architects. Same, they claim, for Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar.

I suppose that this is something to keep in mind when you hear that the upcoming presidential election is the most important of our lifetimes. But while it is reassuring to think that the stakes may not be as great as we imagine, it is quite reasonable to assume that the outcome will matter in some manner, perhaps in highly consequential ways. After all, would the world really be what it is today without Roosevelt and Churchill being in a position to lead the Allies to victory in WWII, or if the headline writers had been correct and Dewey defeated Truman, the man who went on to boldly recognize the State of Israel at its creation?  

The best thing we can do is to vote for the candidate who most closely shares our values. So, as tempting as it may seem to fill out a protest write-in ballot for Moses, we will only have ourselves to blame should our troubled world take a turn to even greater upheaval.  

Still, it sure would be nice if whoever gets elected tries to emulate Moses, who enduringly models the noblest traits of leadership.


Morton Schapiro is the former president of Williams College and Northwestern University.  His most recent book (with Gary Saul Morson) is “Minds Wide Shut:  How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”

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