September 20, 2019

Torah portion: Taking the leap into leadership

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, is marked by the deaths of two key biblical leaders, Miriam and Aaron, in quick succession. With Torah’s accounts of their passing, I found myself searching their lives for some clues as to how we may respond to today’s politics — a divisive election season that has featured a rise in hateful rhetoric and led me to question what leadership means in this country.

Moses, whom Torah calls the humblest person on earth, demurs when God first asks him to lead the Israelites (Exodus 4:1). Aaron and Miriam have opposite reactions. When God first tells Aaron to go meet his brother in the wilderness and become his partner in leading the Israelites, Aaron does so without pause (Exodus 4:27-31). Miriam never even waits to be asked; instead, when her people needed her, “Miriam the prophetess, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her” (Exodus 15:20). 

One brother turns away from a chance to lead, another jumps when called, and the sister doesn’t wait for an invitation. Leaders, Torah teaches us, can begin their journeys in different ways. A lucky few may be called, but the rest of us have to step up. 

Despite their noble beginnings, it is Aaron who responds to the Israelites’ fears about Moses not returning from Mount Sinai by encouraging them to melt down their earrings to make a molten calf and then builds an altar before it (Exodus 32). And it is Aaron and Miriam who gossip against Moses and his choice of a wife (Numbers 12:1-16). Where Moses stays steadfast in his outward loyalty to God and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam waver and are reduced to the lowest common denominator.

I like that they waver and even fail morally. And, I like that they recover. There is something deeply human in their faults and failings, different than Moses, who remains stalwart, even if he does lose his temper now and again. Perhaps the same personality traits that inspire Miriam and Aaron to dissent are also what propel them to bold action and leadership? Perhaps it is their imperfections, which they work to move beyond, that are the secrets to their power? 

And yet, none of their lives was without pain. Aaron suffers the loss of his sons Nadav and Avihu. Miriam suffers from a skin disease in punishment for her gossip against Moses, even being sent outside the camp for a period of time. And, Moses, we learn this week, will be kept from entering the Promised Land to which he worked so hard to lead his people, because of his own shortcomings. 

Yes, Miriam, Moses and Aaron, like many of us, know grief, pain, ostracization and heartache. At times, Moses and Aaron become incensed with the people they are tasked with shepherding. And yet, they manage to lead the Israelites with compassion, never turning their own setbacks into unchecked hatred or inspiring rage against a system, which at times, I am sure, felt deeply unfair and even rigged against them. Even when the people cry out against them. Even when the people complain. Even when God’s decrees must feel so unfair. 

And so, I return to the events of today. We may find, like our ancestors before us, that we have faced pain and personal setbacks, that life has gotten messy and distracting. At times, it may feel easier to ignore the vitriol swirling around us, choosing instead to focus inward, on just improving ourselves and our lives. This week, Torah gently guides us: We have greater potential than this. 

This, I would argue, is the legacy Aaron and Miriam leave us: Like Miriam, it is time for us to leap to action. We need not wait to be invited into political discourse. Hateful comments require us to speak from our central values of chesed (compassion) and binah (understanding). 

And, like Aaron, it is time for us to walk into the wilderness and embrace our brothers. We must not only speak out against repugnant speech, but also take active steps to reach out to people whose stories and lives might be different than ours. Our response to divisiveness should be intentional relationship building. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Torah teaches us.

In the end, when it comes to contemporary politics, we have to evaluate whether our candidate is a true leader or just a rabble-rouser. 

Torah reminds us this week what leadership is really about: Long-standing relationships that, even when tested, find their way back to places of caring and love. Moments of failure and recalibration, accented by humility and a willingness to change. And, ultimately, a readiness to transcend our own lives and stories in order to serve the greater needs of our community. 

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is a rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood