Exactly ten days ago, on November 4th, it was the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli right-wing extremist.[1] Last Shabbat, on the day of the announcement that Joe Biden had become President Elect of the United States, Lord Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, died of cancer at the age of 72.[2] As we think of these two very different Jewish leaders, we say, Zichronam livrachah – May their memory be for blessing. Meanwhile, today is the 72nd birthday of HRH Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne; a ceremonial role that yet allows for moral leadership.

So, Yitzhak Rabin and Rabbi Sacks – Joe Biden and Prince Charles. And lurking in the darkness this past week, another leader; the leader of the Third Reich in Germany, whose war against the Jews of Europe that had begun with a developing programme of social, economic and political exclusion in 1933, turned violent on the night of 9th November 1938.[3] Meanwhile, another anniversary of the past week, also has leadership at its core; the Armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 that brought an end to the Great War that had begun in August 1914.

What makes a good leader? I’ve asked this question before. The events and anniversaries of the past ten days have led me to ask the question again.

In this week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah, we read about the deaths of our first ancestors, Sarah and Abraham. The progenitors of the Jewish people were not leaders. Three generations of one family, B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, relates their journeys from Charan in Mesopotamia to Canaan, and then back to Charan, and then back to Canaan, and finally, to Egypt, where their stories end.

Leadership of the Jewish people began not in Canaan, but rather in Egypt, with the three siblings, Miriam, Aaron and Moses, who between them were responsible for bringing the descendants of the ancestors out of slavery and then leading them on their journey through the wilderness. My summary makes it sound straightforward. Of course, it wasn’t. That journey became a time of wandering that lasted forty years, only ending when a new leader emerged, Joshua, and the descendants of the slaves were ready to enter the land beyond the Jordan. Meanwhile, the three sibling leaders had different styles of leadership, to say the least. Moses, the mediator between the people and the Eternal One, hesitant, prone to outbursts of frustration, and yet a faithful shepherd of his unruly flock. Aaron, the artful fixer, who became a priest, and showed the people the way from a molten calf that he fashioned from their offerings of gold to the service of the Eternal. And what of Miriam? The little written about her in the Torah conveys her courage and chutzpah as she ensured that her baby brother’s mother went into Pharaoh’s palace as his wet-nurse.[4] Years later, two verses speak of her singing and dancing through the divided Sea of Reeds.[5] The last story about Miriam reveals her resentment of her baby brother’s pre-eminence.[6]

Miriam, Aaron and Moses exhibited their leadership very differently. Were they good leaders? To return to my original question: What makes a good leader? It might be easier to reflect on what makes a bad leader. I think that most of us would agree that Donald Trump, President of the United States for the past four years, is a very bad leader. So, perhaps I should begin with a negative approach. What makes a bad leader? Someone who is narcissistic and self-referential; who is utterly convinced of their own rightness, while dealing in lies; who exerts their dominance and asserts non-negotiable absolutes; who is a populist, most at home when they are stirring up the crowd. And yet, there can be no doubt that despite his appalling personal qualities, 48% of the US electorate believe Trump to be a good leader; arguably, the best leader the United States has ever had. They love his drive, his self-belief, his absoluteness, and his wilfulness – and above all, his trumpeting of an America made in their image.

So, I can avoid the question no longer: What makes a good leader? Vision and the determination to translate vision into action. Values and the conviction to practice what they preach. The ability to be decisive and to make difficult decisions. The ability, simply, to lead and bring people with them. Some people would say that this quality requires charisma. The Oxford Dictionary defines charisma as ‘compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.’[7] The Cambridge Dictionary explains that charisma is ‘a special power that some people have naturally that makes them able to influence other people and attract their attention and admiration.’[8] We can all think of a lot of very bad leaders of the past hundred years who had charisma: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, to name just four of the most notorious megalomaniacs. The trouble with the qualities that I have identified as indicators of good leadership is that they can also be displayed by bad leaders, autocrats and tyrants. And surely, relying for one’s leadership on having a charismatic personality should always be suspect. For all his flaws, what made Moses a good leader was his humility.

Over the past ten days, I’ve been thinking about Yitzhak Rabin. I remember the moment I learnt that he had been murdered. Director of Programmes for the Reform movement at the time, I was co-leading a Spirituality retreat with Rabbis Lionel Blue and Howard Cooper. It was Saturday night, and the session I was facilitating involved people sharing personal items and explaining what they meant to them. Rabbi Blue left the circle to take a phone call. When he returned, he stood in the doorway, and said simply, ‘Rabin has been shot.’ There was a TV monitor in the room, so I ran to put it on. Immediately, there was the face of Yitzhak Rabin, and the years of his birth and death – 1922-1995 – confirming that he had been killed. We sat in silence in a state of shock.

So, was Yitzhak Rabin a good leader? A former soldier, as Minister of Defence during the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987, he had instructed Israeli soldiers to break the bones of stone-throwing Palestinian children.[9] But then Rabin became Prime Minister, and recognising the necessity of the hour, became a peacemaker. Another unforgettable moment. I remember sitting in the front room of my sister’s home on 13 September 1993. Heavily pregnant with her second child who was born two weeks later, a toddler crawling around, we watched the TV and witnessed President Bill Clinton facilitating a momentous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader, Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.[10] Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s central square, just as he and those assembled had finished singing a song of peace. A good leader is one who is responsive; who can change their mind when the need arises; who is concerned, first and foremost, to act on behalf of the people they serve. Rabin did not have a charismatic personality. He wasn’t much of an orator and could be taciturn. What makes Rabin memorable is the fact that after decades of conflict, he was willing to overcome his personal reluctance and suspicion and make the effort to reach out his hand to his previously sworn enemy.

A good leader is probably a combination of different qualities that balance one another: confidence and humility, conviction and reflection, determination and caution, decisiveness and hesitation. But it’s not possible to define a good leader simply in terms of their personal qualities. By definition, being a leader implies the presence of a group, a community, a society. Leaders can always be flawed; after all, they are human beings. In my view, in order to exercise good leadership, leaders need to facilitate, enable and empower others. And more than this, they need to be in contexts of active, informed citizenship that is rooted in shared humane values supported by social, economic and political structures that promote equality and equal opportunity and are regulated by just laws. The picture I’m painting of an ideal societal environment makes it look impossible to establish good leadership. We only have to think of President-Elect Joe Biden and the challenge he faces of trying to unite ‘the divided states of America’. He can’t do it. Given that the nation is divided, he doesn’t have the mandate he needs to bring people together. But perhaps, with his goodwill and empathy for the suffering of others born of his own personal tragedies, Joe Biden will be able to manage a successful holding operation – at least, for the four years of his term, by which time, hopefully, a leader capable of enabling the nation to move in a progressive direction will emerge. Perhaps, that person will be Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold that office, and with her black and Asian heritage, the first woman of colour – who, incidentally, is married to a Jew.[11]

Which brings me to another pertinent issue about leadership. In the long history of Patriarchy, the rule of the ‘fathers’, female leaders have been rare exceptions. I mentioned Miriam. The Torah marginalises her contribution to the leadership of the people. Acknowledging this, the rabbinic sages, promoted the legend of Miriam’s Well that accompanied the people on their journeys through the wilderness until her death.[12] They also selected the story of the Judge and leader Deborah, as the haftarah, the concluding reading from the Prophets on the Shabbat when the Torah portion, B’shallach, relates the Exodus from Egypt. In our own day, women leaders have been few and far between. Some of them, like Margaret Thatcher[13] and Indira Gandhi[14], have been autocratic. And then an exceptional woman comes along, like 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate, Ang San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese National League for Democracy who became the first state counsellor of Myanmar, and she ends up betraying her progressive principles.[15] Jacinda Adhern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, appears to be a true exception, not only as a woman leader, but as a leader altogether. Decisive in her approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jacinda Adhern has also demonstrated her commitment to enabling the development of an integrated society, in which all communities, including indigenous Maoris on the one hand and recent immigrants on the other, can participate on equal terms.[16]

In my opening remarks, I mentioned the death last Shabbat of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I met Rabbi Sacks at the induction of Rabbi Rader at the Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation. I spoke with him briefly at the reception afterwards. I recall that he asked me if my congregation was doing well. I was pleased to tell him that it was. I have asked the question what makes a good leader? Clearly, good leadership depends on the active participation and engagement of the people – whether the setting is a nation, or a city, or a community. Ultimately, good leadership enables communities to lead. As I approach my retirement after twenty years as your rabbi, it is a great source of satisfaction to me that this congregation is vibrant and thriving. Encompassing a rich diversity of individuals, couples and families committed to connecting our Jewish inheritance to our lives today and making a progressive contribution to the wider society, it is abundantly clear that Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue is leading the way for Jewish life in the 21st-century.

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

14th November 2020 – 27th Cheshvan 5781

  1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/4/newsid_2514000/2514437.stm

  2. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jonathan-sacks-death-chief-rabbi-lord-b1680501.html

  3. One of the best accounts of the Nazi period and its impact on the Jews of Europe is found in The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 by Lucy Dawidowicz (Penguin Books, 1975).

  4. Exodus 2:1-10.

  5. Ex. 15:20-21.

  6. Numbers 12:1-16. Miriam’s death related at Num. 20:1. The remaining references to Miriam in the Torah are at Num. 26:58-59 and Deuteronomy 24:8-9.

  7. https://www.lexico.com/definition/charisma

  8. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/charisma

  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzhak_Rabin#Opposition_Knesset_member_and_Minister_of_Defense

  10. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/13/newsid_3053000/3053733.stm

  11. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2020-53728050

  12. In the Talmud, tractate, Ta’anit, which deals with ‘fasts’, which were frequently related to drought, we read: ‘Israel had a well in the desert in Miriam’s merit’.

  13. Prime Minister of the UK, 1979-1990.

  14. Prime Minister of India from January 1966 to March 1977, and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984.

  15. https://www.theguardian.com/world/aung-san-suu-kyi

  16. https://www.theguardian.com/world/jacinda-ardern