To borrow that old marketing chestnut, if you read only one Torah portion this year, make it this week’s. An astonishing story in a book thick with them, it teaches us a lesson in leadership that resonates particularly loudly these days.
At the story’s core are the Israelites: Stiff-necked and simpering, they complain to Moses that the divine diet he’s catered for their errand in the desert, the heavenly manna, just won’t do. In Egypt, they whine, they had watermelons and leeks and garlic, and all for free, give or take a few cracks of the whip and the permanent gloom of the house of bondage. Give us some meat, they demand of their weary leader, and he, poor soul, turns to God and delivers a rant for the ages.
“Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he howls. “Why have I not found favor in your eyes that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land you promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying ‘Give us meat to eat.’ Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way you treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.”
What follows is some good, old-fashioned smiting: God rains down delicious quail, the ungrateful Israelites gobble them up, and then, the meat still stuck between their teeth, they’re struck down by a wrathful Lord. Recognizing the limits of leadership, Moses appoints 70 elders to help him govern his unruly people and whisks his new makeshift parliamentarians outside the camp so that they may commune with God and prophesy in peace. Left behind, two unelected young men, Eldad and Medad, feel the spirit move them and do some unsanctioned prophesying of their own. Joshua, Moses’ second-in-command, is appalled: Didn’t the boss specifically restrict prophesy to all but his new lieutenants? Aren’t Eldad and Medad breaking the law? Shouldn’t Moses arrest them? But the saturnine leader refuses to hear any of it. “Are you zealous for my sake?” he asks Joshua in a profound meditation on the nature of true leadership. “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow his spirit upon them!”
If only all the Lord’s people were prophets. This week, hallelujah, one in particular was. A lifelong Republican, a Christian, a high-school teacher from Colorado and a delegate serving on her party’s convention’s Rules Committee, Kendal Unruh, 51, has started a movement called “Free the Delegates,” calling on those slouching toward Cleveland to vote according to their conscience rather than mindlessly anoint the singularly unworthy Trump.
“I have been to seven Republican conventions, served on Credentials and Platform Committees, and this is my first time on Rules,” Unruh said in a recent interview. “I am hoping to find another nominee besides Donald Trump. I really do believe in individual conscience and religious conscience. It’s why the pilgrims came here, it’s why we have a Bill of Rights. You can’t force people to violate that, it is an integral part of what it means to be an American. The conscience clause that I am sponsoring is only to remind the delegates that they are already unbound. All my clause does is allow them to cite a rule. They have the Kryptonite, I’m just sending them a memory that they have it.”
Like Eldad and Medad before her, she rose to embody the godly spirit of liberty. They did it by breaking the establishment’s rules; she, by upholding them. Such a principled and inspired stand would’ve come as a bolt of joy anytime, but it’s particularly welcome now that the men and women we’ve elected to lead us are behaving as cravenly as the last of those ancient quail-eaters from the wilderness. On the right, the shepherds of the GOP are failing to find Unruh’s courage and moral clarity and eject the bigoted bampot who’s coveting their party. Things are hardly better on the left, where legislators this week chose not to show up and legislate—a taxing task, lousy with necessary compromises and burdened by common sense—but to grandstand instead, sit on the floor, and make silly demands.
There’s much that could be said about the anti-gun sit-in that captured the imaginations of the easily excitable this week. You could wonder why the sitters-in were demanding we sanctify the civil rights catastrophe that is the no-fly list, which allows no due process to the many—including, say, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy— whose names have been erroneously added to the roster. You could ask why the suddenly sedentary elected officials chose to focus on assault rifles when the overwhelming majority of gun deaths in the United States are caused by handguns, or, if you’re feeling more elemental, inquire why said legislators weren’t passing legislation simply by voting or whether their repeated failure to pass the laws they’re now advocating through spectacle has something to do with the laws themselves being unacceptable to most Americans, a great many of whom feel kind of funny about government turning up to take away their constitutionally granted rights. Whatever your answers to these questions, by asking them you’ve already taken one step closer to real leadership and one step away from the insufferable insipidness of the creeps who were elected to shoulder our burdens.
Think what you will about gun control, think what you will about Donald Trump, think what you will about the exodus, but remember the lessons of this week’s parsha: Leadership is too difficult, too sacred, and too necessary to be left to the anointed few. As Eldad and Medad and Kendal Unruh show us so unequivocally, we all have within us the engines of our own greatness. All we need to do is start them and see change coming, not from above but from within, sustainable and real and sweeter than we can imagine.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.