At the beginning of this week's portion, Parshat Va'ethanan, Moses relates to the Israelites how he begged God to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel and how God refused his request. But then Moses does something that seems both uncharacteristic and "unleaderly": He blames the people for his predicament (Deuteronomy 3:26):
But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me
I shared my puzzlement with a student, who suggested to me the following interpretation. Moses's rebuke of the people at this point in their history, and in this way, was actually a very brave act, and a true moment of leadership. Moses had proven throughout his tenure as the Israelites' leader his readiness to put his own life on the line to protect them. Indeed, at the Israelites' lowest ebb, after the Golden Calf episode, Moses dissuaded God from destroying the entire nation by offering to be blotted out in their place (see Exodus 32:32). It is implausible, therefore, to suspect Moses of being self-centered or callously blaming the people for his own failings. And it is not just we readers who know this. Moses knows it too. That is what enables him to hold up a mirror to the people and to tell them the truth as he sees it, even when it would be easier to let sleeping dogs lie.
According to this interpretation, Moses's rebuke of the people is actually a remarkable act of leadership. Moses led the people on an amazing journey and transformed them from a band of slaves into a powerful nation. What could be more tempting, as life is about to end, than to ensure his legacy by speaking comfortingly and flatteringly to the people, and leaving their feathers unruffled? But no, Moses, chooses instead to tell them some painful truths, even at the risk of their anger and his future reputation.
I was reminded of this interpretation later in the week, when we concluded another cohort of one of our leadership programs. It was clear to all involved in the program that this had been a remarkable year, full of transformational learning and the cultivation of meaningful relationships among the participants and between the participants and our faculty. In the summary session, the appreciation in the room for the program's director was palpable.
In my head, I connected the feelings in that room with the above thoughts about Moses's rebuke. As occasionally happens, the still-forming thoughts in my head didn't exit my mouth in quite the way I intended. So, in the spirit of that wonderful French phrase, l'esprit de l'escalier, (literally, the spirit of the stairs) here's what I wish I'd said:
You might think your program director thinks you're special, and that that's why she worked so hard to create profound learning experiences for you. Let me let you into a secret. She doesn't. She will always be happy to hear from you and of your progress. But she's not waiting for your calls or emails.
All the passion, creativity, deep thinking, and hard work that she poured into her time with you this year comes from another, purer place. She is an educator, an educational leader, whose passion is to help other educators to do better, more thoughtful, work and to live more creative professional lives. What matters to her is not how you feel about her or the program. The only thing that really matters to her is the way you think and act as educators after it.
Yes, as Mort Mandel reminds us, it's all about who. But it's not all about you! Being a leader means leading wherever and whenever you find yourself faced with opportunities to do good and to make the world a better place.
When I asked your director to lead this program, she said yes. But she also made clear to me that she thought there might be better ways for her to use her talents, and she wanted to know my rationale. Like Moses, she wasn't afraid to argue with her boss or to tell the truth as she sees it. And that's one of the reasons you appreciate her so much. She is always ready, mirror in hand, to point out where you've got more work to do. And she will not rest until she's helped you to build up the courage to look into that mirror and to do something about what you see.
That passion, commitment and strength of character are what we mean by educational leadership. It's education of the kind that Abraham Joshua Heschel had in mind when he wrote (in “The Spirit of Jewish Education.” Jewish Education, Fall 1953, pp. 9-20): "What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people."