Much has been written about Moses as a leader – a Google search for “Moses leader” yields more than 16 million results. However, in Religion and Contemporary Management: Moses as a Model for Effective Leadership, local community member Dr. Arthur Wolak not only explores what contemporary leaders (at least in title if not in fact) could learn from the man who led the Israelites out of slavery, but also examines how Moses’ traits and actions fit into different theories of leadership. Readers will learn as much about leadership in general as they will about Moses and, of course, will take away some pointers on how to improve their skills in this area.
It may or may not come as a surprise, but being a good leader is an awfully hard task, requiring a wide-ranging multitude of abilities. Add to that the importance of a person’s character, and it seems nigh impossible. There are no guarantees. Even if you master the top attributes of a good leader, you may not become one. Sure, you might be innovative, original, empathetic, humble, tenacious, attentive, ethical, patient and have a clear vision – that doesn’t mean people will necessarily follow you.
But there is hope to be found in reluctant, flawed Moses, even if he didn’t really exist. Whether or not one believes there was ever such a person in the world, Wolak notes, “there is still no denying Moses’ influence on Jewish identity, group leadership and Western civilization as a whole.” In addition to being the greatest prophet in Jewish tradition, Moses is a respected figure in Christianity and Islam, Wolak points out.
In the first few chapters of Religion and Contemporary Management, Wolak discusses the different types of leadership, how leadership and management differ, and the benefits and drawbacks of charisma. The next chapters focus on Moses and the ways in which he displayed empathy, possessed humility and was a visionary leader. He also knew his limitations and how to delegate. For example, explains Wolak, when Moses first objects to God choosing him to lead the Israelites, Moses says it’s because he is “slow of speech,” but God brings him round, assuring him that his brother, Aaron, speaks well and can be Moses’ spokesman.
Wolak puts some fun – and educational – twists on things, such as proposing that the Ten Commandments were God’s mission statement to the Jewish people and that Moses “assumed the role of biblical CEO, of sorts, because he became a leader entrusted with transforming God’s mission statement into a viable entity….” Wolak is also very clear that, despite his use of Moses as the model leader and the patriarchal aspects of the Torah and Judaism (and all religion, pretty much), excelling at leadership “is not gender based but built on good character and leadership abilities,” and that “there have been effective female leaders since biblical times.” He gives several examples of such women from the Tanakh and the modern era.
Another part of Wolak’s book that will particularly interest today’s readers is a nine-page section called “Modesty and Holiness,” which mainly contrasts real estate developer rivals Paul Reichmann and Donald Trump, who was not yet president when Wolak was writing his book.
While academic in style, Religion and Contemporary Management is accessible to lay readers. It is well researched and the analysis is well supported with evidence from religious texts, academics, theoreticians and a range of other voices, from Maimonides to Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill. Published by Anthem Press (2016), the hardcover has an academic text price, at more than $100, but the Kindle version is only $30.50.
As Wolak concludes, “anyone who wishes to learn how to lead, and to learn what characteristics are beneficial for effective leadership, would do well to study the example of Moses.” Then all you need to find is the energy and wherewithal.
“I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living,” writes Oliver Sacks as the dedication to Gratitude (Knopf Canada, 2015), a collection of four essays that were written in the two years preceding his death last August.
“I have given much of my life to the Jewish world, and I wish I had many more years to serve this noble calling,” writes Edgar Bronfman in concluding his book Why Be Jewish? A Testament (Signal, 2016), which he completed mere weeks before his death in December 2013.
Bronfman continues, “But everything has its natural end, and so now, as my time on earth draws to a close, I would thank my stars even more if you would choose to stand at Sinai; if you would choose, as I did so many years ago, to join this remarkable people who generation after generation held fast to the dream that through our individual and collective efforts we could transform the troubled world we share into a more perfect, more humane, more civilized place.”
Even though he became intrigued with Judaism late in life, Bronfman still defined himself as secular, “not comfortable” calling himself an atheist “in the face of the complexity of the universe.” He had a connection to Judaism through his grandfather, but it was weak. “My parents,” he writes, “for whatever reason, failed to instil much-needed Jewish pride in their children.”
Sacks was a self-described atheist. For him, it was his mother’s strongly negative reaction to the news of his homosexuality that pushed him away from belief: “The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty,” he writes.
However, the final essay in Sacks’ Gratitude is called “Sabbath.” In it, he recalls his parents’ observance of Shabbat, a day that “was entirely different from the rest of the week.” He recalls how the family would mark the day, how he became bar mitzvah, his break with his family and community in England after he qualified as a doctor and moved to Los Angeles, his “near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines,” his recovery and how he “became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.” In addition to being a neurologist, most readers know, Sacks was an author – he wrote more than a dozen books, including Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other Clinical Tales and An Anthropologist on Mars.
Sacks comes to appreciate Shabbat: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Gratitude is a short but powerful collection. It is masterfully written and nearly impossible to get through without crying. All of the essays have been published before, but having them together for re-reading, rethinking and re-feeling is more than worthwhile. Every read will be a cathartic experience.
The first essay, “Mercury,” was written just before Sacks’ 80th birthday in July 2013. In it, he talks about what it feels like to be turning 80, some of his regrets, but mostly how much he has left to do, “freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”
“My Own Life” is named after the autobiography of one of Sacks’ favorite philosophers, David Hume. Sacks shares a couple of paragraphs from that 1776 work, using it to lead into a discussion of his own state of mind. “My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself.” While not without fear, he writes, “my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.”
In the third of the four essays, “My Periodic Table,” Sacks talks of his love of the physical sciences and how, since “death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence,” he is surrounding himself again, as he did when he was a boy, “with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” On his writing table is a gift from friends for his 81st birthday, thallium, as well as lead, for his recently celebrated 82nd birthday. After discussing the treatment of his cancer, he expresses his skepticism about reaching 83, his bismuth birthday. He did, indeed, pass away at 82.
Bronfman died at 84. It is particularly fitting to be discussing his book Why Be Jewish? as Passover nears. Two of the nine chapters are directly related to the holiday: Chapter 8 is about its rituals, the story, the symbolic aspects, its importance, while Chapter 9 presents the principles and practices of leadership as demonstrated by Moses – not Moses the manager, but rather, “Moses the man who, as flawed as he was, executed brilliant strategies that ultimately transformed much of the world. These principles are also relevant to everyday leadership, from parenting to day-to-day responsibilities at work.”
There are many lessons Bronfman derives from Moses and the Exodus story. Good leadership involves standing up for something, perseverance, vision, pragmatism, courage, celebration of accomplishment, allowing opinions (even complaints, perhaps especially complaints), awareness of one’s strengths and shortcomings, adherence to a moral code, the duty to pass the mantle. He doesn’t believe that Moses’ non-admittance into the Promised Land was a punishment – instead, from Mount Nebo, Moses is permitted to see the entire Promised Land, “God is showing Moses the future that is really what most leaders want: they want to know that their dreams and vision will live on.”
Bronfman notes about the Torah’s last word, Israel: “It seems to me that we are being told that the commitment to Israel – the people – must be the focus, not Moses. And since ‘Israel’ means wrestling with God, the Torah also seems to charge the Jewish people with the task of ‘wrestling,’ a term I take to mean a commitment to struggling with that which we find difficult to embrace and not letting go until we find the truths we seek.”
In another chapter – on the rest of the Jewish holidays – Bronfman writes that he “would like to see the institution of Yom Ha’atzmaut Circles in synagogues and communities where Jews of multiple views could come together to discuss books that put forth different ideas on Israel’s situation, from Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel to David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land.”
He also talks of Shabbat, referring to the group Reboot, “a network of young, creative Jews who have sought ways to grapple with questions of Jewish identity and community in terms that will be meaningful to their generation….” He gives examples of other youth who are engaged in a meaningful Jewish life and the book’s foreword is written by Angela Warnick Buchdahl, who was a Bronfman Fellow in Israel in 1989. The program for high school juniors was founded by Bronfman, former chief executive officer of Seagram Co. Ltd., who also was chair of the board of governors of Hillel International and president of World Jewish Congress. Bronfman has written other books, including The Bronfman Haggadah with his wife, artist Jan Aronson.
The goal of Why Be Jewish? is to encourage nonreligious Jews – especially the younger generation – to practise the elements of Judaism that speak to them, and it is written to that audience. He touches upon all the basics of Judaism from the perspective that, “Judaism does not demand belief. Instead, it asks us to practise intense behaviors whose purpose is to perfect ourselves and the world.”
Bronfman’s approach is appealing in many ways, and he offers practical advice for the non-observant on how to connect with Judaism’s tenets and traditions. Even for the somewhat-observant Jew, many of his ideas will be interesting. His outlook is positive and well conceived. It is also inclusive.
He writes, “My own feeling is that Judaism is a big family of individuals with a common bond that has stayed strong through a long history and much hardship. Those who want to become part of this story are Jews, too. I believe the tent should be open and welcoming to anyone who wishes to join.
“For younger Jews today, choosing a particular ethnicity or culture may seem too narrow a form of self-identification. But I do not see Judaism as a form of tribalism that divides rather than unites. The Jewish people are one of the many vibrant patches on the richly diverse quilt of humanity. Each patch has its own design and, together, they make a beautiful whole. Embracing your heritage deepens your understanding of who you are and where you come from and brings you into a more meaningful relationship with the multicultural world.”
Moses (Christian Bale) and Nun (Ben Kingsley) star in Exodus. (photo from exodusgodsandkings.com/#)
Moses, as best I recall from Hebrew school and The Ten Commandments, was a reluctant prophet with a speech impediment who was ultimately persuaded by the unspeakable, unceasing suffering of his people – and God’s fearsome support – to confront Pharaoh and lead the Hebrews out of slavery.
My, how (biblical) times have changed. The much-anticipated Hollywood epic Exodus: Gods and Kings reinvents the saga of a people’s miraculous liberation as one rugged individualist’s journey of self-discovery, identity and profound purpose.
The fundamental matter of spirituality, which might be defined in this context as the courage and power of faith, comes up in conversation a few times but not in ways that impact the movie-goer’s experience. Your post-film repartee is more likely to centre on the curious and disconcerting form in which God (or is it an angel acting as his emissary?) appears.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, which opened everywhere Dec. 12, is a sun-blistered chunk of glowering, male-centric mythmaking. Aside from its oddly anti-climactic ending – recognizing that it’s a tough call how many desert miles and years to continue the tale after the Red Sea – this is a well-paced, continuously engaging piece of mainstream entertainment with the requisite amount of impressive visual effects (in 3D). Just don’t go expecting to be awed, or to have a religious encounter.
Title cards inform us at the outset that the year is 1300 BCE and the Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for four centuries. However, “God has not forgotten them.”
Omitting the standard baby, basket and bullrushes, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zailian (Schindler’s List) introduce Moses (Christian Bale) as a general and Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) as his best friend since childhood and heir to Pharaoh’s throne.
Exodus immediately launches into a full-scale, screen-filling battle scene – a preemptive attack that might be construed as a comment on the Iraq War – in which the seed of Ramses II’s paranoia and jealousy of Moses is planted. This section is designed to excite male viewers but also to inoculate them against the ensuing hours of banter, revelation, wilderness wandering and domesticity before the warrior hero returns to Egypt to blow things up real good. (You think I’m kidding, but Exodus boasts fiery explosions like any other self-respecting, would-be action movie.)
Even if he was raised as a prince of Egypt, the portrayal of Moses as self-confident and militarily adept takes some getting used to. It does explain, however, his disbelief when the gutsy Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) informs him that he was a lowly Hebrew infant smuggled upriver toward the Pharaoh’s palace.
The biblical story is quite familiar to us, of course, even if creative licence is employed via verbal flashbacks and narrative compression. Consequently, Exodus is most intriguing from a Jewish perspective for the ways it alternately evokes and evades the dominant events in the modern Jewish world – the Holocaust and Israel (its founding, existence and current relationship vis-a-vis the Palestinians).
The 20th-century genocide of Jews is alluded to in myriad ways, from the burning of the corpses of slaves to the Egyptians lined up to insult the Hebrews as they leave. (The Exodus is presented as complying with Ramses II’s order to get out, so it is a deportation.)
An earlier sequence, in which Ramses’ soldiers knock down doors and brutalize Hebrew families in an effort to find (and kill) Moses, inevitably, recalls the Nazis.
When The Ten Commandments opened in 1956, the Holocaust was so recent, and raw, that it didn’t need to be referenced. The horrific genocide did inform the movie, however, in that the general public needed no help rooting unequivocally for the Hebrews’ freedom.
Another key factor was the new state of Israel’s status as a universal symbol of hope and rebirth. That image no longer holds sway, and the filmmakers acknowledge the contemporary perception that the oppressed have become oppressors.
While Moses and Joshua strategize how to cross the Red Sea, and Ramses’ chariots thunder in pursuit, they take a moment to ponder the Hebrews’ eventual return to Canaan. Now numbering 400,000, Moses points out, “We would be seen as invaders.”
This is an unexpected acknowledgement of power, one that Arab audiences (in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Egypt, where Exodus: Gods and Kings opens Dec. 25 or shortly thereafter) will welcome. Evangelical Christians in the United States, another large target market, will have the opposite response, presumably.
Jews, of course, will interpret and respond to the film from yet another perspective. The Torah does lend itself to various readings, after all. So does this robust movie, even if it is unlikely to inspire study groups.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
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