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The making and testing of leaders

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO–It is not easy to be the leader of a club or organization. Some people like you, others dislike you, and you need to develop a thick skin.

No one knew this better than Moses. No matter how hard he tried, the Israelites criticized and judged him and at times, even rebelled. If that wasn’t bad enough, even God held him to an impossible standard.

Parashat Chukat contains the well-known story of Moses striking, instead of speaking to the rock. The Israelites were doing what they did best: kvetching. They complained to Moses that they were thirsty and they would have been better off if they had remained in Egypt. God told Moses to assemble the people and to command a nearby rock to gush forth water. What did Moses do? Instead of speaking to the rock and commanding the water to flow, he struck the rock with his staff . . . and not once, but twice.

God was not happy. He told Moses: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Num. 20:12).

God said to speak to the rock, but Moses hit it instead. That’s pretty harsh punishment for such a minor infraction. But our sages tell us Moses’ punishment was amplified because he was such an important leader and role model. If God did not punish Moses for this minor infraction, the Israelites might come to believe that they, too, could disobey God with impunity.

I am not sure that all of us would agree that Moses’ punishment fit the crime, but we would agree that leaders live under microscopes and are subject to scrutiny. However, leadership also provides great opportunities for doing good. Sometimes the results they work for are not immediately apparent but take time to become reality.

The same is true for our own good deeds. Sometimes it takes years or even generations for the holy seeds we plant today to flower, grow, and bear fruit.

Have you ever heard of an Illinois school teacher named Mentor Graham? Probably not. He wasn’t particularly famous or well-known but his small acts had a tremendous effect on this country’s destiny.

One day a tall and unschooled teenager walked into his classroom for the first time. He was tall – 6’4″ and muscular. He couldn’t read or write and even though he had just recently moved to town – he already had a reputation for getting into nasty fights.

Mentor Graham looked the boy up and down and instead of chastising or threatening him, quietly offered to help him learn to read and lent him some books.

Not a big deal, you might think. It’s a small act, one any teacher would do. But this small act was not forgotten. In fact it was an inspiration. And even if history books don’t recall this quiet and unassuming man who helped a local tough learn to read, his student never forgot him; a student by the name of Abraham Lincoln. (Speakers Source Book)

Even though we all encounter criticism, frustration, and obstacles in our lives, let us not allow them to overwhelm or overcome us. Let us continue to do good and plant holy seeds and sparks in those around us.  May we sustain ourselves with the faith that the seeds and sparks we plant today will bear holy fruit in the years to come.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue

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