Lessons on leadership from the life of Moses

Lessons on leadership from the life of Moses Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l

It was a unique, unrepeatable moment of leadership at its highest height. For forty days Moses had been communing with God, receiving from Him the Law written on tablets of stone. Ten God informed him that the people had just made a Golden Calf. He would have to destroy them. It was the worst crisis of the wilderness years, and it called for every one of Moses’ gifs as a leader.

First, he prayed to God not to destroy the people. God agreed.

Then, he went down the mountain and saw the people cavorting around the Calf. Immediately, he smashed the tablets. He burned the Calf, mixed its ashes with water and made the people drink. Then, he called for people to join him. The Levites heeded the call and carried out a bloody punishment in which three thousand people died. Then, Moses went back up the mountain and prayed for forty days and nights. Then, for a further forty days he stayed with God while a new set of tablets was engraved. Finally, he came down the mountain on the tenth of Tishri (Yom Kippur), carrying the new tablets with him as a visible sign that God’s covenant with Israel remained.

This was an extraordinary show of leadership, at times bold and decisive, at others slow and persistent. Moses had to contend with both sides, inducing the Israelites to do teshuva (repent) and then, for HaShem to exercise forgiveness. At that moment he was the greatest ever embodiment of the name Israel, meaning one who wrestles with God and with people and prevails. The good news is: there once was a Moses.

Because of him, the people survived. The bad news is: what happens when there is no Moses? The Torah itself says: “No other Prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). What do you do in the absence of heroic leadership? That is the problem faced by every nation, corporation, community and family. It is easy to think, “What would Moses do?”