Moses for U.S. President: Three Qualities of a True Leader

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'Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law,' by Gustav Doré (from 'Doré's English Bible,' 1866).
'Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law,' by Gustav Doré (from 'Doré's English Bible,' 1866).Credit: Getty Images

As the U.S. presidential primary process slouches toward what will doubtlessly be a contested convention season this summer, I find myself not infrequently wondering what guidance the Jewish tradition would have for selecting our next leader. I have already written that Judaism would advocate against a particular candidate in the race. But who would the Jewish tradition urge us to support? 

The answer I’ve settled upon is that Judaism endorses not a specific contemporary candidate but rather a prototype, and that, if possible, we ought to support the candidate who each of us feels most closely embodies this prototype. So, I humbly offer the prototypical Jewish presidential nominee, and just in time for Passover: Moses for president. 

Let’s get the attack ads out of the way first. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace (Exodus 2:9), it would be easy to characterize Moses as an out-of-touch one-percenter who cannot identify with the struggles of the common person. Indeed, Moses’ would-be followers seem to have leveled this line of criticism against him in a few instances (2:14, 5:21). He is not a talented orator (4:10, et. al.) and seems to have a hot temper (2:12, et. al.). And he is not reputed to have been a devoted family-man, focusing on his career at the expense of caring for his wife and son (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Tzav 13). 

But while Moses is by no means a perfect person, he possesses qualities that uniquely qualify him for leadership.
First, Moses is a man of questions. While he has only a handful of lines of dialogue in the biblical narrative before he receives God’s call, most of those lines are questions (cf. 2:13, 3:3, 3:11, etc.). And even Moses' statements and actions prior to his commission that are not technically questions are investigatory in nature (cf. 2:11, 3:3). Despite the fact that many of us associate leadership with decisiveness, leadership is more accurately about discovery. A leader must determine the best way forward for his or her followers, which requires the curiosity and courage to discover the uncharted. In other words, while we ultimately look to our leaders to make firm decisions, the best leaders are the ones who ask a lot of questions in order to get the information necessary to make deeply informed decisions. God needed a leader to liberate the Israelites, and since leadership requires asking good questions, God needed Moses, a man of questions.

A second, and related, quality that uniquely qualifies Moses for leadership is his humility. The Book of Numbers refers to Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (12:3). Moses repeatedly insists to God that he is not suited to lead (Exodus 3:11, et. al.). Perhaps ironically, however, Moses’ failure to recognize his own greatness is precisely what makes him great; his inability to see his own leadership potential is exactly what qualifies him to lead. Great leaders ask a lot of questions, and inquisitive people are by definition humble. Arrogant people generally fail to recognize what they do not yet know and are thus incapable of intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. Modest people, on the other hand, are aware of their intellectual deficiencies, skeptical of their own certainties, open to changing their minds based on learning new information, and eager to grow.

Additionally, great leaders respect and admire their followers. They humbly recognize their followers’ strengths, learn from their expertise, nurture their partnership, and unleash their latent potential. Arrogant people make poor leaders because they look down on others and have little patience for those they view as inferior. For these reasons, haughtiness is consistently called out in the Bible and rabbinic literature as the most contemptible of qualities, while humility makes one fit to lead.

The third and final quality that moves me to endorse Moses for president is his sensitivity to others’ pain and his passion for justice. Good leaders take their followers down paths that will improve their lives. Great leaders recognize that this responsibility is most relevant to those who suffer the most – the poor, the weak, and the systemically disadvantaged.

Moreover, great leaders recognize that improving the lives of the worst-off often requires tremendous courage, for doing so can involve the unpopular or dangerous tasks of upending some people’s privilege when that privilege causes oppression. In the biblical narrative, Moses repeatedly and bravely defends the weak when they are oppressed by the powerful, and uplifts the disadvantaged.

The first time we encounter Moses in the text as an adult, he is leaving Pharaoh’s palace, his childhood home, in order to witness the subjugation of the Israelites, an act the rabbinic tradition interprets as Moses taking the initiative to become aware of others’ suffering and become pained about it (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 1:27). When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, he is so outraged by the injustice that he physically intervenes – a self-sacrificing act that forces him to flee Egypt, leaving behind the wealth and power of the palace (Exodus 2:11-15). 

When he sees some shepherds harassing a group of women and preventing them from drawing well-water, he rises to the women’s defense, chasing away the shepherds and even helping the women water their flock (2:17). It is telling that God only calls upon Moses to liberate the Israelites after these events take place, as if God chooses Moses because of these acts of moral courage. Indeed, Moses is so passionate about fair treatment, so sensitive to others’ suffering, that he is even willing to directly challenge God’s commitment to justice (5:22-23). 

In the view of the Jewish tradition, a great leader need not be perfect, but he or she must, like Moses, be inquisitive, modest, and compassionate. Do any of the current presidential candidates meet the Moses standard? The answer, of course, depends on each person’s judgment. Personally, I see ways in which each of the leading candidates embody Mosaic values and ways in which they do not. But we don’t typically get to elect the perfect candidate, just the best of the options we have. If we were to wait to vote for Moses, we might never cast a ballot.

What we can do – those of us who agree that Moses is a worthy political prototype – is to evaluate the candidates and decide who best, even if imperfectly, aligns with his virtues. We may not get to elect Moses for president. But perhaps we can come close.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.