Leadership for the wilderness

Israel needs less 'moderation' and more vision.

Olmert IDF 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert IDF 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Our liturgical calendar has now brought us to the biblical book of Bamidbar (Numbers), that is, the book entitled "In the Wilderness." We will find ourselves, as we do every year, identifying with our ancestors, the Children of Israel, who have recently been freed from Egyptian bondage, who have received their covenantal inspiration and instructions at Sinai and who are now embarking on the road to national sovereignty in the Promised Land. But the very word "wilderness" is ominous. And, sure enough, the generation that should have been on its way to "redemption," instead aborts its Zionist mission, forfeits its destiny and condemns itself to die in the wilderness. Why did this tragedy occur? It could be summarized as Israel's inability to recognize what authentic visionary leadership needed to be for the prodigious tasks of national rebirth. And so they challenged, undercut and sabotaged Moses's efforts to mobilize them into a confidant and dedicated people, unified by a commonality of spirit and national purpose. Instead, they preferred following the misguided evaluations of the 10 spies, the demagoguery of Korah and the destructive cynicism of the likes of Dathan and Abiram. THAT WE in Israel today are facing a leadership crisis is a truth so universally accepted, that it has become a clich . We certainly have enough "pretenders to the throne," politicians vying for the opportunity to lead. Why have we lost confidence in virtually all of them? Why has the very word "politician" become a term of derision? Perhaps we can offer some signposts for judging whether or not a professional politician is worthy of becoming a leader, the leader, that we need. First, Shakespeare put into the mouth of Macbeth the quintessential description of that kind of ambition which is the antithesis of that which should inspire devotion to public service: "I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other." Macbeth, and many politicians, are guilty of narcissistic ambition, the kind that looks at the world as strictly a mirror of their individual egos. Granted, all leaders have egos; but responsible leaders see themselves as serving their communities - principally, exclusively and sacrificially. The model of Moses is unmatched for selfless commitment to the Children of Israel - to the point of virtual self-effacement when necessary. Secondly, leadership obviously requires power. Leadership is the exercise of power. The use of power is indispensable to any creative human effort: to plant, to build, to energize, to cure. But power must serve the people's loftiest human interests, or it corrupts. The well-known epigram "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is only true of the leader who looks to benefit himself and his in-group while ostensibly serving the community. Thirdly, there is in Israel a patent reluctance of incumbent leadership to admit personal failure and to leave the political arena to others. It seems as if one who enters politics in this country expects to have a permanent sinecure, no matter what the level of performance. Perhaps this is the fault of the way people are elected to leadership. Perhaps it is the idolatrous tendencies of the electorate. One used to think that a healthy characteristic of a democratic society was the right to "trow da bums out of office" when the people felt badly served. Here, it seems as though a politician always has the opportunity "to learn from his mistakes," to do teshuva, as it were, and to try again. At whose expense? THE "Wilderness Generation" of the Bible had one saving grace. They raised a generation that, unlike them, was ready to move forward to the Promised Land. This new generation was educated to be clear about its Zionist destiny, the spiritual, socio-ethical, political and military investments that would have to be made to settle and then to defend the Land of Israel. A fundamental question for us modern descendants of those biblical generations is: Are we clear about our Zionist destiny and the geo-political reality in which we find ourselves? The Winograd interim report issued a major critique of "some of the political and military elites in Israel [who] had reached the conclusion that Israel is beyond the era of wars... the IDF did not need to be prepared for 'real' war. There was also no urgent need to update in a systematic and sophisticated way Israel's overall security strategy and to consider how to mobilize and combine all its resources and sources of strength - political, economic, social, military, spiritual, cultural and scientific - to address the totality of the challenges it faces." In the face of such a brutally comprehensive critique - on top of the specific censures of individuals regarding failures of judgment, incompetence and muddled planning and execution - will we dare to move ahead with a "business as usual" attitude? The Kadima-led government announces its intention to make the corrections demanded by Winograd. Will it relate seriously and practically to the report's major critique? Can it, when the "ideological" grounding of Kadima at its birth rested on the shoulders of one dictatorial father-figure who lies in a coma. Kadima claimed that it was to be a moderating force in Israel's political center. It succeeded in "moderating" the expulsion of 10,000 Jews from their homes in Gush Katif. It fought a "moderate" war against Hizbullah, i.e. offering "moderate" defense of the North. It continues to deal "moderately" with the Siamese twin Fatah-Hamas, the monstrous offspring of Oslo. Is this the leadership model which Israel needs now? TO BE a leader of people is profoundly difficult. A wise man once said: "It is impossible; therefore, it is so difficult." Ask Moses, who was the most "successful" leader we Jews ever had, notwithstanding the agonies which he suffered in redeeming a stiff-necked people from slavery and bringing it to the threshold of national redemption in its own land. What redeemed Moses as a leader was the vision, the plan and the strategy for giving and protecting the life of his people. The vision, the plan and the strategy were not moderate. Let us all who are here in Israel today because of him admit to that. And then move forward with a prayer that our future leadership will move from narcissism to responsibility. The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem.