The terrorist insurrection at the Capitol shocked the nation. Donald Trump’s second impeachment not so much. The American Pharaoh was headed for disaster. His leadership stood in contrast to that of Moses.
Rabbi Shai Held spotlights Moses’ leadership strengths in The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus, Volume 1 (2017).
In his first essay on Exodus, “Why Moses?”, Rabbi Held writes: “What makes a leader? For the Torah leadership is not primarily about methods or tactics; it’s about character.” Trump’s character long ago scraped bottom. Witness his disparaging of opponents and encouragement of white supremacists and anti-Semites. Moses demonstrates upstanding character from the outset.
As Rabbi Held points out, and the biblical text depicts, Moses, like the patriarchs, is not perfect. He intervenes when an Egyptian taskmaster beats an Israelite and kills the taskmaster. Many Jewish commentators condemn Moses for the killing while acknowledging his response to injustice. Moses then tries to stop two Israelites from fighting. Confronted with their knowledge of the killing, Moses flees to Midian. There, local shepherds keep the seven daughters of the priest Jethro from watering their sheep. Moses protects the daughters—later marrying one, Zipporah—and waters their flock.
“The Torah wants us to know that Moses is not just offended by injustices perpetrated against his own people. Moses also defends foreigners and strangers.” Trump has no use for people of color and Jews who aren’t sycophants, let alone immigrants from “shithole countries.” Comments Rabbi Held, “In order to be worthy of leadership, one must rebel against wrongdoing no matter who the victim is.”
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing in the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, his unwillingness to call for investigations and review of police procedures, cast a dark shadow on his tenure in the Oval Office. Moses teaches us that a leader “… must also have compassion and act accordingly.”
Trump’s transactional approach—what’s in it for me?—makes no room for anyone other than those who enable his hypocritical politics to promote his business enterprises. How then would Trump consider that allAmericans have a right to vote, and those votes determine election outcomes?
Trump’s narcissism long impelled him to forsake reality for a world of fantasy in which he declared the nation broken and “I alone can fix it.” Rabbi Held points out that prophets usually reject God’s call. “Who am I?” Moses asks. The prophet Jeremiah also begs off. Rabbi Held observes, “As hard as it can be to remember in a culture obsessed with self-promotion, a degree of self-doubt is essential for authentic leadership.”
The political apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In August 2018, Mike D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, reported on CNN that Vice President Mike Pence believed God wanted him (Pence) to be president. Serving as vice president made him president-in-waiting. Had Pence invoked the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, he might almost have been right. But he backed off from the opportunity and perhaps from “God’s will.” Pence 2024? Don’t bet on it.
What lies ahead for America under Joe Biden’s administration? That remains to be seen. What preceded it demonstrates that the Oval Office needs Moses-style leadership dedicated to liberty and justice truly for all.
Thanks to Rabbi Abby Phelps of Congregation Sherith Israel for introducing me to Rabbi Held’s work.
Glad to note that a new short story, “Mirror, Mirror,” will appear in the spring edition of the Avalon Literary Review.
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