Moses and Lincoln: Teachers of Leadership Models for Congregational Life



by Livia D. Thompson, FTA

“And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal; they had faith in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this [Shirot Hayam] song to the Eternal.” B’shalach (Exodus 14:31—15:1)

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions,” (Abraham Lincoln during one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, August 21, 1858, according to Lincoln on Leadership)

Moses and Lincoln, while separated by thousands of years of history, are both extraordinary leaders in the most stressful of times, and they can teach us much about leadership models for congregational life. They moved their communities to take action and created a sense of common purpose and vision. Because of their leadership, their communities were able to step forward into the unknown with dreams of a brighter future ahead.

While we are not living in a time of as much personal danger as ancient Egypt or as divisive a time as the American Civil War, there is no question that this is a time of great uncertainty and angst about the future of the liberal synagogue and the Reform Movement. Without getting into the endless debate of whether events create leaders or leaders create opportunities, there is no question that our congregations benefit from strong lay leadership and that inspired leadership will help spur the kind of important conversation and action that congregations need to successfully cross their own Sea of Reeds while keeping their own Union whole . Lincoln and Moses demonstrate important characteristics of leadership from which to draw inspiration. In both instances, they had to push and prod, but also create opportunity for their followers to not only accept the message but to embrace it as their own vision for the future. That is our challenge as well as leaders of congregational life.

Moses’ leadership qualities, as demonstrated in the Torah portion B’shalach (Exodus 13:17 to 17:16) about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, have been the focus of many commentaries. (Moses’ sister, Miriam, also displayed a kind of supportive and cooperative leadership when she danced with the women, after they had crossed the Sea, Exodus 15:20—15:21) During this portion, Moses leads the Israelites in singing Shirot HaYam, the “song of the Sea” as the Israelites took their first steps on the dry land of their new freedom. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain and a Torah scholar, outlines four different leadership models that can be inferred from the way in which Moses “led” the Israelites in song. (For more on this, see “Covenant and Conversation: Beshalach—to be a Leader of the Jewish People” and In Covenant and Conversation: A weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible/ Exodus: The Book of Redemption.)

  1. Moses as king, giving the Israelites the song and they merely responded as subjects by saying amen;
  2. Moses as teacher, who made sure that the Israelites learned the text by repeating exactly what they heard;
  3. Moses as a leader of colleagues, who began each section, but was quickly joined I by the others;
  4. Moses as father, who started the song and then allowed the Israelites to finish on their own.

What models are best for current congregational life? Each one has merits and probably there are times for each depending on the issue at hand. But, I believe that the thornier the issue, the more important is it to not just dictate from on high, like a King, and not to spoon-feed the community. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln argued in the Lincoln-Douglas debate quoted at the beginning of this piece, a significant change requires a leader who molds public opinion by encouraging people to take on a challenge, and who is more of the father/child leader giving the public the strength and the tools to be the change agents themselves. The best of our synagogue lay leaders provide a place for the next generation of leaders to emerge and develop, while also empowering the community to step forward and take ownership.FacultyLogo

We can all aspire to be the kind of leader who creates space for those we are trying to lead to take our words to heart, and then turn them into a new and beautiful version of our own Shirot HaYam.

Livia D. Thompson, FTA, is president of the National Association for Temple Administration (NATA). She is the executive director of Central Synagogue in New York City and a member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners.

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