The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Doron Perez’s recently published book entitled “Leading the Way”, collected writings on some of life’s most important matters.
Living with constant and unjust criticism
Moshe Rabbeinu is the greatest of all Jewish leaders and arguably the greatest leader of all time. Moshe was handpicked by G-d and perfectly executed His most important mission; redeeming His People from slavery in Egypt, the regional super power of the time, to freedom and Divine Revelation through earth-shattering and supernatural miracles. He guided three million people, from infants to the elderly, through the arid Sinai Peninsula and brought them to the brink of the Promised Land, reflecting a leadership career of greatness, humility and selflessness.
There are myriad leadership lessons to be learnt from Moshe Rabbeinu. Much ink has been spilt and many books have been written to describe in detail these phenomenal leadership attributes. I have chosen not to focus on any particular attributes of Moshe the Leader, but rather to highlight one irrefutable and undeniable fact about the reality of leadership which emerges so clearly from Moshe’s leadership career in general and the book of Bamidbar in particular.
Accusing Moshe of murdering Aaron
There is no greater test case than that of the leadership life of Moshe to prove that any leader, no matter how great he is, and no matter when he has lived, will be subjected to constant cruel, harsh and unjust criticism.
We are all familiar with the well-known statement about the leadership attributed to one of the United States’ greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, where he said: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”
Moshe’s leadership, however, takes this to a totally different level. Moshe was constantly and cruelly criticised for leadership decisions, despite the following remarkable fact: he was handpicked by G-d, perfectly executing His plan, bringing unequivocal and enormous benefit to those he was leading. He was elected by G-d even though it was not something that he chose of his own free will. He presented five different arguments to G-d as to why he should not accept the leadership position, but Hashem did not accept them and practically forced him into the position. He fulfilled his duties so extraordinarily that the Torah testifies at the end of the Five Books of Moses that there has never been and never will be another Prophet among all Israel like Moshe. He constantly prayed on their behalf and was even prepared to be blotted out of the Torah if G-d would not forgive them for their sins. Notwithstanding all of this, even Moshe was never able to please everyone and was constantly subjected to the most unfair, cruel and at times insane criticism, and he even had to fend off a widespread rebellion which almost had him removed from leadership had it not been for Hashem’s intervention.
Understanding this reality and learning to accept it and deal with it is, in my opinion, a crucial and indispensable part of succeeding in the art of leadership.
I will mention a few particularly harsh accusations which were levelled at Moshe throughout his leadership career.
The accusation – lack of integrity and nepotism
It is quite astounding how Korach, one of the prominent men of the Tribe of Levi, initiated a rebellion which almost succeeded in deposing both Moshe and Aaron. He bizarrely managed to convince 250 of the leaders of Israel to rebel against Moshe and question his integrity. Korach and his band of followers accused Moshe of the highest level of disingenuity and nepotism. They maintained that he appointed his brother Aaron to the High Priesthood and secured the Priesthood for Aaron’s children and children’s children for generations to come, maintaining that Aaron’s right to the Priesthood was not a commandment given to Moshe by Hashem, but rather something that he made up of his own volition. Our sages describe the incredible demagogic skills of Korach and his unusual persuasiveness, which enabled him to win over so many to his rebellious cause. They also describe how Korach was motivated by personal ambition as he felt overlooked at not being elected to be, at the very least, the head of the Tribe of Levi or perhaps even the Kohein Gadol. As he felt hard done by, he therefore planned a rebellion to right this perceived injustice and launch this personal and scathing attack against Moshe and Aaron. The rebellion almost succeeded and ended, of course, in oblivion only because G-d miraculously interceded to protect Moshe.
I have always been astounded by two facts regarding this rebellion. Firstly, Korach’s success in winning over 250 of the upper echelons of Bnei Yisrael’s leadership, and secondly, that he only succeeded in surviving the rebellion through Divine intervention.
The accusation – unhappiness in his home and plotting against his people
We find many further cases of Moshe being unfairly criticised. However, this time it is not by leaders tainted by personal ambition, but by seemingly arbitrary members of the Jewish people for the most ridiculous and unfair claims. In the beginning of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy 1, 2) Moshe laments how difficult he found it to bare the burden and the strife of Bnei Yisrael. The great super-commentator, Rashi, comments on this verse that people behaved to Moshe as heretics in the following way. When Moshe would leave his home early to judge the people, the people would say to each other, “Why is it that the son of Amram (Moshe) leaves his home so early in the morning? Perhaps there is unrest in his home.” implying that he has troubled family relationships and therefore leaves early in the morning so as to avoid having to deal with the internal family strife. On other days, Moshe would leave later in the morning – what would people then say? They would say, “Why does the son of Amram leave so late in the morning? This is because he is sitting and devising negative plans and thoughts against us.”
Unbelievably, instead of reasoning that Moshe got up early because of his self-sacrifice to serve the people, and the reason he would sometimes stay late would be in order to fulfil his family responsibilities – they never gave him the benefit of the doubt. The timing of when he left his tent was interpreted in exactly the opposite and most negative way. Whatever he did he seemed not to have been judged favourably, and people attributed his actions to unjust and negative motives and circumstances.
Accusations – stealing and further nepotism
There are a number of further harsh criticisms in the Midrash Tanchuma that members of Bnei Yisrael would level against Moshe. In Parashat Pikudei 13, Rabbi Chama said that people would say derogatory things about Moshe after he was collecting money and materials for the building of the Tabernacle. They would say “Look how fat his neck is and how fat his thighs are. He is using the money from the Temple to buy expensive and fattening food and drinks. He is using the money of the Temple coffers to do these things and everything that he has, has been purchased from the money that the Jews donated.” Incredibly the man appointed by G-d to lead the people and to build the Tabernacle is now being accused of stealing and being a dishonest robber. The Midrash continues with further criticism in Parashat Vayakeil, 3. The Midrash states that the Jewish people started murmuring behind Moshe’s back after he appointed Betzalel to be the architect of the Mishkan. Betzalel was a great nephew of Moshe – a distant cousin and yet once again there were many who accused him of nepotism.
Accusation – detaining or murdering his brother Aaron
The most shocking accusation levelled at Moshe can be found once again in the Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Chukat Chapter 17). We read that at the end of chapter 20, of the death of Aaron HaKohein, G-d tells Moshe and Aaron that the time for Aaron’s demise is approaching, and Moshe is to ascend the mountain called Hor Ha-Har, with Aaron and Elazar, his son. The clothes of the Kohein Gadol must be taken from Aaron and placed onto his son, Elazar, after which Aaron would die and be buried in the mountain. After this transpired, Moshe returned from the mountain without Aaron and with Elazar wearing Aaron’s clothes. Amazingly, the Midrash says the people felt so bereft of Aaron that they did not believe Aaron was dead. They thought that Moshe was lying to them and that perhaps he either detained him on the mountain or killed him. They gave Moshe an ultimatum that if he wouldn’t present Aaron to them, they would stone him. Moshe then davened for G-d to intercede, which he did miraculously, by showing the people an image of Aaron’s dead body.
It is of course understandable that the people should feel bereft of the great lover and protector Aaron, but the fact that they should accuse Moses of lying to them and perhaps even killing him, boggles the mind. The level of discontent, unhappiness and harsh criticism towards Moshe is astounding. How they continued to project the insecurities, unhappiness and fears onto their leader, attributing horrific crimes to him that he could never have committed, remains a most perplexing, condemning and reprehensible reality of many of those of the generation of the desert.
Not everyone cried when Moshe died
The Avot D’Rabbi Natan (chapter 12), the most ancient commentary on Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – provides an important insight as to the reason for so much unfair criticism of Moshe. Rabbi Natan’s insight is based on comparing the response of Bnei Yisrael to the death of Aaron to that of Moshe. When Aaron dies the verse explicitly mentions (Bamidbar 20; 29) “… And the whole house of Israel cried for thirty days when Aaron died.” When we juxtapose this verse with the response of Bnei Yisrael to the death of Moshe at the end of the Torah (Devarim 34; 8) we find “and Bnei Yisrael cried for Moshe at the plains of Moav for thirty days”.
One immediately notices that in the case of Aaron, everybody cried, ‘Kol Beit Yisrael’ – the whole house of Israel, whereas after Moshe’s death, the word ‘Kol’ – everyone – is missing. People most certainly cried and mourned, but not everyone. Rabbi Natan, picking up on this discrepancy, offers the following crucial insight. The reason that everybody loved Aaron and everyone cried for him was that Aaron never ever said to a man or a woman, “you have acted improperly”. On the other hand, Moshe had the responsibility to judge the people according to the law and had to, at times, admonish them with harsh words.
It is abundantly clear that the difference between Moshe and Aaron is that Moshe was a decision-maker. In his role as leader and judge, he had to make tough decisions that were not to everyone’s liking. Certainly as a judge, when two litigants are in front of him, more often than not he would have to rule in favour of one of the litigants. That would mean that around fifty percent of the people who were judged in a way that the ruling went against them, might have felt aggrieved by Moshe’s stance. Very seldom do the ones who are found guilty own up and admit to their sins. More often than not, they continue to proclaim their innocence and feel that they were judged unfairly by an unjust judge. If this is true when it comes to the justice system, it is also true in the realm of political leadership. Moshe was not only the head of the judicial system; he was also the spiritual and political leader. He often had to make decisions such as political appointments in the case of Aaron and Betzalel, who of course Hashem had commanded him to appoint, the consequences of which left people feeling overlooked and upset. These people were often not able to get over their grievances and could not forgive and forget, never being able to see the mitigating circumstances of the decision-maker who has to rule one way or the other and can never please everyone. Rather, many chose to bare grudges and project these inadequacies, insecurities and uncomfortable feelings onto Moshe, blaming him for their woes and unfairly criticising him.
Aaron, on the other hand, was the national peacemaker. He was not a leading decision-maker and was never forced into a position that he had to rule against anyone. In Aaron’s world, the great lover of Israel, everybody could always be right and acknowledged regardless of whether their views were true. Rabbi Natan explains how he would go out of his way to make peace between people and convince everybody that their subjective point of view was correct. Aaron could afford to be the peacemaker because his brother Moshe had the more difficult task of being the decision-maker. Being a decision-maker endears you to some and distances you from others, and therefore not everyone could be sad at the death of Moshe and cry for him at his demise in the way that they did for his brother Aaron.
A lesson for all generations
Anyone assuming any leadership position in any enterprise in life has to understand that no matter what they do, no matter how sensitively they lead and no matter to what extent they will go to make everyone happy, they will never succeed in this endeavour. Leadership is not for the fainthearted. Being a leader invariably means having to make tough decisions and to form policies which have consequences for those who they affect. There will always be those who disagree and feel aggrieved by the consequences of such decisions. Many will unfairly project their subjective grievances onto the leader, especially those who lack a deep sense of emotional intelligence and an ability to empathise with the impossible position that leaders and decision-makers find themselves in.
The controversy of Akavya ben Mahalalel
I would like to conclude with a fascinating story about the great sage of the Mishnah, Akavya ben Mahalalel. The Mishnah testifies that Akavya was the wisest and most pious of his generation (Masechet Eiduyot 5; 6). Despite Akavya’s great wisdom and piety, he ruled contrary to the majority view of the sages of his time in four particular halachic instances. This was controversial as the overriding principle in issues of Jewish law is to follow the majority. The Mishnah tells that Akavya disagreed with the sages in these four instances because he maintained he had heard his views from the sages of the previous generation and that they had been the majority at that time. In other words, even though in his generation he was of the minority view, he maintained unflinchingly that his was continuing the ruling of the majority of the previous generation, which he had heard directly from them. When the sages of his time ruled against him and he would not abide by their ruling, they even considered spiritually excommunicating him.
Despite this and because of his greatness, the sages of the time approached him with the following proposition. If he would rescind his views and accept the majority ruling, they would appoint him as the head of the Supreme Beth Din and he would be great judicial ruler of Israel. Akavya responded that he could not do this, as this would be betraying his personal integrity and his belief and knowledge of what was true. He further maintained that if he would change his view, people would say he lacked integrity and could be bought by money and prestige. They would say he only changed his opinion in order to further his leadership career. To the end of his days, Akavya maintained his minority view and was subjected to isolation and strained relationships with the sages of his time. However, he felt that as a leader and decision-maker, he could not betray the principles he believed in, even if it compromised the way he was viewed and the harsh and ongoing criticism that it would attract.
May everyone who finds themselves in the privileged position of playing a leadership role always endeavour to serve with honesty, integrity and selflessness and embrace the reality of leadership and decision-making in having the strength and fortitude to put up with subjective grievances, unfair criticisms and unjust subjective projections. Moshe, appointed by G-d Himself, and who led with such loyalty and dedication for 40 years, was not above this terrible consistent and unjust criticism. Despite this, Moshe is arguably the greatest human being and leader to have ever lived. The impact he has had on the moral and spiritual destiny of humanity in general and the Jewish people in particular is unquestionable. His life and legacy as the great selfless leader of Israel, redeemer of his people and loyal servant of the One and only G-d, endures for posterity.