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Moshe Rabbeinu and the Winograd Commission

Our politicians would do well to learn a thing or two from Moshe: a man humble enough to listen to others, but not so humble that he can no longer lead
Dr. Menachem Lorberbaum is a former Senior Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute, where he led the Bet Midrash program for four years. He has a doctorate in philosophy from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is professor of Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University, where he was founding chairperson of the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies, and where he chaired the Graduate School of Philosophy. His most recent book


The final report of the Winograd Commission contains a meticulous review of the blunders and failings of the Second Lebanon War. From the ineffective tactics to the underprepared troops to the unprotected home front, the report presents a detailed indictment of Israel’s political and military leadership at the time of the war. It does not, however, issue any personal recommendations.
This decision to abstain from personal accountability is particularly lamentable, as the Winograd Commission comes in the wake of an ongoing breach of confidence between the Israeli public and its government. The last three wars Israel was involved in have all been highly controversial; starting with the Yom Kippur War, continuing with the first war in Lebanon and culminating with the fighting last summer, Israel’s military history over the past 35 years is replete with questionable motives, poor strategic planning and irresponsible decision-making.
This is especially true of the last campaign, whose leaders – according to the Winograd report – wavered between political amateurism and criminal negligence. Today, Israelis are deeply mistrustful of their government, uncertain of whether it knows what it’s doing and reluctant to put their lives in its hands.
When I consider the reasons for this confidence crisis, I am reminded of a question I asked my teacher, Prof. Michael Walzer, many years ago: How is it that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations got themselves embroiled in the Vietnam War the way they did? Given the high caliber of people in the two administrations (such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy), how could they have fallen into such a trap? Prof. Walzer answered me: “You see, these people were Machiavellian princes: they thought they knew.”
This explanation, I believe, is no less relevant to the political reality in Israel; over the past three decades, Israeli leadership has been dominated by people who think they know, and that they know better. This hubris, this sense of superiority and self-importance, is eroding Israel’s political culture.
On the flipside, the Second Lebanon War has demonstrated that if too much confidence produces irresponsible leadership, too little confidence is just as dangerous. The former leads to recklessness, the latter to paralysis. In fact, one of the problems highlighted by the Winograd report is that the IDF’s operative plans against Hizbullah were never actually put forward, due to fear of public opinion. This is something we simply cannot afford, particularly now – as we stand at the dawn of a serious conflict with Iran.
It is in this context that I read the Torah’s portrayal of Moshe’s leadership: "Moshe, however, was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). I have often understood this to be more of a critique than a compliment; while humility is no doubt commendable in a private person, I am not sure it is what we would want from a leader.
However, looking at Israeli politics over the past 35 years, I now believe the Torah here provides us with a paradigm of Jewish political morality. Moshe is, in many respects, a model leader: a man who is humble enough to be receptive to the opinions of others, yet not too humble to the point where he can no longer lead.
This is the model Israeli leadership ought to emulate. The call of today is for a confident leadership that will neither fall into the trap of hubris, nor lack the courage to stand by its convictions. Only with such a leadership will Israel be ready to face the many serious challenges ahead.
– Written with Gila Fine

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