On the Death of a Leader

Remarkably, I wrote, titled, and published this post just hours before hearing of the death of Steve Jobs. Whether the sentiments expressed in this post apply as well to that leader will only be apparent with the passage of time; as my post intimates, it is impossible at this point to assess the true nature of his leadership. For more on that exact question – what is the hallmark of a true leader and whether Mr. Jobs fits the bill – see this fine article.

On Rosh Hashana I started a new cycle of learning NachNevi’im (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) – in a year, a cycle I did once before and found wholly enriching. At the pace of two perakim (chapters) per day, you can finish all of Nach in one year. Simchat Torah, as we finish the Torah (the first part of Tanach), is another great time to start. (That’s what I did last time.) If you’re looking for a relatively painless and altogether worthwhile way to enrich your year of learning, learning Nach in a year (sometimes called Nach BaShana) is a wonderful idea.

From time to time, I will blog thoughts or insights I’ve had in my Nach learning, so you can join me on my journey.

The first day of 5762 introduced Yehoshua with a declaration by Hashem so obvious that it begs attention: “Moshe Avdi Meit – Moshe, My servant, is dead.” These words seem to impart little in the way of original information, adding nothing that Yehoshua would not have already known. What is Hashem’s point?

We will explore two classic possibilities, those offered by Rashi and Malbim, later on. First, though, a psychoanalytic approach. In grief counseling, one of the major goals of the counselor is to help the bereaved pass from the stage of Denial to that of Acceptance. The ability to state that one’s loved one is no longer alive may seem easy on its surface – but to someone who has recently experienced loss, it is anything but. The declaration of “Moshe Avdi Meit” is a reminder to Moshe’s students, to all of us, that we should live life in a manner of Acceptance, not Denial. Denial is a normal and healthy response – for a time. When the week of Shiva ends, however, one should ideally transition to a Moshe Avdi Meit mode – a realization that a new life can now begin, albeit in the absence of that person. Hashem is teaching us how to grieve, and how not to grieve.

Rashi takes a different tack, one apparently more critical of Yehoshua: “If Moshe wasn’t dead,” Hashem tells Yehoshua, “I would rather he still be the leader, and not you!” While this may sound cynical or unkind, it is actually not so. Recognizing one’s true place in life allows him to have the full vantage point of his ability to succeed in the roles he has been given to perform. In Yehoshua’s case, the new leader is given the opportunity to grow into the role for which he has been appointed, which only adds to his overall greatness.

Malbim (see link for biography) takes a uniquely balanced approach, mixing the push for intellectual honesty of Rashi with the consolation of Acceptance to create a challenge to Yehoshua. The Malbim elucidates the new leader’s conversation with Hashem: “Moshe, My servant, is dead – and because of this, two previous roadblocks have been moved. a) Originally, crossing the Jordan River was impossible – but now, [as the verse goes on to command,] Arise! Cross the Jordan! b) Originally, it would never have been impossible for you to be the leader. But now, [as the verse goes on to promise,] all of the Nation will follow you!” The note of incredulity at Yehoshua’s new-found leadership implicit in Rashi’s reading of the Pasuk now turns to a note of optimism and opportunity. Here, Yehoshua, is the chance you have been waiting for! Moshe was holding you back from crossing the Jordan – now you can cross! Moshe was holding you back from being the leader – now it is your turn! The void left by the loss of a leader can be filled with new opportunity and previously unimaginable areas of growth. Of course there is room to be sad, room to mourn. At the same time, loss creates opportunity, because the very aspects of leadership most important to that leader can now be taken over by his followers. And for a good leader, for whom nothing is more gratifying than seeing his followers able to exist without him, standing proudly on their own two feet, the loss of the leader becomes the ultimate purpose of that leader’s having lived at all. An oligarch might view loss with a feeling of sadness, as his reign of self-importance has reached its end. A good leader, however, determines the ultimate measure of the success of his leadership as a product of what happens when he has left, with the moments most important to determining his success only beginning at the time that his tenure is ebbing. Perhaps paradoxically, the more accomplished the leader, and the more centered on his people his leadership, the greater the opportunity for those people to create, grow, and build after that leader is lost from his people.

Moshe was just such a leader. The opportunity that his loss created meant that that loss would not lead to a leadership vacuum, but a leadership opportunity. For Yehoshua, as for us, that call of Moshe Avdi Meit beckons us to find our own leadership potential deep inside, one that only the loss of a leader as great as Moshe can create.

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