True Leadership Must Self-destruct
Pikudei [Exodus 38:21 – 40:38]
Pikudei is the last weekly portion in the Book of Exodus. It closes the story of the slavery of the Children of Israel and their liberation from the bondage of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
The Book of Exodus could also have been called the Book of Moses. It records his life, providing the detailed historical background to Moses’ appearance in the Torah story, from the circumstances of his birth and his childhood, through to God’s revelation, which turned Moses into a shaliah (messenger of God), and on to the Moses’ long and challenging journey to become the leader of his people.
The weekly portion Pikudei is also the last one in the sequence of the weekly portions describing the building of the mishkan (tabernacle). Pikudei’s last verses are truly festive, reflecting the grandeur of the moment: “And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
The moment is great, the mishkan is finished. God’s presence has filled it, and the palace is suitable for its king. After the great danger and calamities of the Exodus, the hour of God’s will, et ratzon, descends upon Moses and the Children of Israel. Their first year of wanderings in the wilderness has come to an end. This is a moment of great construction, creativity and creation, and it is a very proper ending to the story.
Yet, there is a sad negative tone in the verse: “And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meetings…” After all the trials of his loyalty and faith, after a year of challenges and dangers, after Moses has done everything right in order to ensure that the building of the tabernacle would please God – there is no place for him because, we are told, “the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
That is, there is so much presence and glory in the tabernacle that there is no place for Moses himself.
We could comfort ourselves by interpreting these verses as a representation of God’s utmost satisfaction with Moses and His people: They have done what God demanded of them with precision and care, and at that moment, as Moses performs his last act and fills his last commandment, God immediately shows his presence in full glory. So they can be sure that God is pleased. And the more glory, the more God is pleased.
And, anyway, who is supposed to be present in the mishkan in the first place? After all, it is not a dwelling for humans. From its inception, this mishkan has not been planned and built for Moses or for anyone else; it is solely for God: “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
So perhaps we should not feel bad for Moses because he is not able to enter. We should probably be content to admire the creation of the mishkan, built by ordinary people and inspired by God, and the glorious clouds of God’s presence.
Yet somehow this great splendor leaves us feeling distant. We have lost the sense of intimacy, and we feel a profound sorrow for Moses, who had worked so hard, who had been his people’s leader and protector even as they faced the Almighty. It was Moses who spoke to God face to face, yet it is Moses who is now left outside.
The verse conveys a lack of connectedness. And even though the weekly portion ends with the description of the clouds of glory that guide Israel day and night in the wilderness, the feeling of close and direct connection is disrupted.
Maybe we cannot abide too much glory, even if it is God’s glory?
Or perhaps a true leader leads until he or she is no longer needed. The true leadership must self-destruct. Leadership is needed in times of disturbance and unrest and, if it serves the people and their goals, then it must solve the problems, bringing calm and quiet.
According to this interpretation, leadership demands utmost altruism and self-effacement. People may act out of self-denial in a variety of situations, but that does not mean that they do not seek gratitude or appreciation.
After finishing the Book of Exodus on Shabbat morning and proclaiming our partnership with God and mutual responsibility, as we do when we finish one of the five books of the Torah, we will, in the afternoon service, read the first chapter of Leviticus, the next book, which begins with, “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting…”
We should feel no despair: As we continue to read, we realize that the connectedness and the intimacy are still there. There are many more challenges ahead for the stubborn Children of Israel as they make their long way to the land that was promised to our forefathers. As we continue our reading, we come to realize that the Torah teaches us to be grateful, not to simply discard our leaders when we no longer need them, but to hold on to our relationships with them. If God does, then we certainly should.