A good leader makes leadership look easy, but it seldom is. The road is filled with unexpected twists and turns. Conflicts arise and the solution is rarely simple, nor are all of the involved parties always happy with the outcome.
So it is remarkable that in a mere 17 verses of this week’s Torah portion, God and Moses each demonstrate an essential characteristic of leadership. (Numbers 27:6-23)
First, God responds to the request by the daughters of Zelophehad to allow them to inherit their father’s estate by changing not only the laws of inheritance for women, but for other situations when a man dies without a male heir.
That’s the sign of a good leader – understanding the meta-question behind a specific one, and seizing the opportunity to create a new reality that is prepared for possibilities not yet imagined.
And then Moses does something that should be required reading for everyone who leads groups of people. God tells Moses that he will die soon, and the first words out of Moses’ mouth have to do with passing the mantle of leadership. He says:
“Let the Lord, the God of all spirits of all flesh, set a man before the congregation, who may go out before them and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep who have no shepherd.”
So God creates and Moses enacts a public ritual to install Joshua as the leader of the Children of Israel.
The ritual involves the laying on of hands, much like the ritual used to ordain me earlier this year. In fact, the same word is used; smicha, which means to lean, or rely upon. Joshua relied on Moses to endow him with his authority, so that the people would know that Joshua was prepared to be their true leader.
That the ritual was public is also significant. It allows all of the people to witness the act of passing leadership status from one person to another. It is the reason that our presidential inaugurations are held outdoors, in a public setting.
Moses was more than magnanimous when giving the reins of leadership to Joshua. He helped to ensure Joshua’s success. And he would be able to die knowing that the future of his people, for whom he had worked so hard and so long, would be in good hands.
May all of our leaders be so wise, caring, and unselfish. Because inevitably the next generation must step forward, must fill their shoes, and must continue to lead the community into the future.