Three Sinai Leaders

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The following is an adapted versions of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat, on Parashat Yitro.

Three new moons have passed since the Israelites had gone out of Egypt, and they now camp in the wilderness of Sinai. For forty days and nights, Moses is on Sinai, and the Israelites camp at its base. These moments are formative for everyone involved. Torah—our Tree of Life—is transmitted on top of Sinai, from God to Moses. Moses then brings it down to the people of Israel, only to find that in the mean time they have constructed the golden calf. These forty days are jam-packed with such significant spiritual detail, that touching on a single aspect would open up and let flow a wellspring of d’rash.

As the Israelites camp at the foot of Mount Sinai—similar to the Sea of Reeds—the biblical authors and the Rabbis seemed to focus on the importance of particular personalities. In this instance, the Sinai moment is critical in instructing us as to who Moses, Aaron, and Joshua are as our ancestral leadership. To look at these three figures in terms of their leadership at Sinai, gives us three perspectives on how leadership plays out in the life of a congregation of Israel.

Moses is the one who ascends Sinai. For forty days and nights, there he is, receiving Torah from God. God and he speak panim el panim, face to face. Together, God and Moses speak clearly, without complication. With no one else does God have a relationship like God does with the servant, Moses. Moses has been afforded position among the People. God makes him the leader; yet, as Moses’ childhood foreshadows, having been raised in Pharaoh’s house, Moses is lives the life of an outsider. The top of a mountain covered in clouds or behind a closed door in the corner office–a leader who stays in such a place is by definition removed from his or her followers.

Still, he overcomes such obstacles and is esteemed within the community. He is known for his humility, and he—in receiving the mitzvot from God—is a model exemplar of someone who follows the mitzvot.

Well, that is, until he breaks the mitzvot. In a moment of grief, anger, and despair, Moses loses himself in front of his people, publicly going against God’s commands. The people need water, and Moses is told to speak to a rock in order that it may give what the people need. Yet, he strikes out at the rock. Water flows from it, but he has publicly disobeyed God’s command.

Exemplary leadership is only good until it isn’t any more. There are boundless examples of leader’s indiscretions and improprieties coming to light, only to fracture the tokenism to which we hold them. How troubling. Would we not rather our leaders, and others, to be real people, rather than symbols that mask personality? We are bound to show cracks and fissures when trying to be a symbol over a person. Moses cannot even strive to be Moses all the time.

Sometimes, leaders find themselves acting a bit more like Aaron.

Aaron, after all, is the one who is in the fray. He is the one there at the golden calf. Commentators debate Aaron’s culpability in the sin of the golden calf. He is ambiguous in his role there. While Moses is on the mountain, removed from the people, out of relationship with the people—albeit in profoundly deep relationship with God—Aaron is the one there with them. Moses is delayed from coming down the mountain, and so the Israelites say to Aaron: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” The people are ready to the act. Aaron—as the priest for the Israelites—right or wrong, is there with them. In Aaron’s leadership, although troublesome, he is among the people.

When one leads from among, he or she is in the moment with the people, responding to immediate needs and wants. Leaders who lead from this place are not a part of the lofty conversations had at the highest rungs of leadership—they are not the ones on top of Sinai. They are those who respond to and act with the masses. Aaron and Moses, as two brothers in quite different places at Sinai, are leadership in dichotomy.

Among the people, responding to bacchanalia-like behaviors, or up in the clouds, receiving values, vision, and grand designs from Greatest of Greats? Perhaps a middle-ground can be found.

During all this time at Sinai, the Rabbis wonder: where is Joshua? As the one who will succeed Moses in leadership, who will take Torah from Moses and give it to the assembly, where does he fit into this picture? One midrash states that Joshua is the one who is half-way up the mountain.

Joshua is neither here nor there. He is not the worst qualities of either, nor is he the best of either. Like a child who takes on the attributes of both parents, Joshua, in his leadership, figures out a way to lead people forward with both vision and reality in hand. He can say to the Israelites: Chazak v’eimatz, be strong and resolute, do not be afraid, for God is with us.” In such a statement, he lets the people know that there is a goal, a Promised Land, and a God who has ordained the actions they are taking. In Chazak V’eimatz, Joshua is also saying that with that vision, he understands the reality of the situation. Joshua is a warrior. He brings the people into the land, and goes to battle to take various communities in which the Israelites can dwell. As a warrior and soldier, he must deal with reality in order to win the battle. Both a visionary and rooted in reality, Joshua offers us a model of leadership that is balanced, that is half-way up and half-way down Sinai.

At the base of Sinai sit the people, wanting to serve God in this newfound freedom. To do so, they need instruction, they need direction, they need the gift of Torah, which only Moses can bring down to them. And at the base of Sinai, they also long to be payed attention to, to be noticed, to be made to feel special. Aaron fills that role. And Joshua is the one who can pull our people’s story forward, to even greater heights after Sinai, into the Land of Israel.

Three leaders, each speak to behaviors that are not—in truth—encapsulated in a particular time or place. Each of us find ourselves at Sinai moments, or encounter others we want to ask to be there with us at Sinai. Are we Moses in those moments? Are we Aaron? Are we Joshua? Who are we in our best and worst moments of leadership? What are we asking from our leaders when we expect them to be our symbolic exemplars or to corrupt themselves with us in communal sin? As we stand at Sinai, we are afforded the gift of reflection on where we currently find ourselves, and where we long to go.

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