A while ago, I needed some dental work. As I sat in the waiting room, I noticed a rack of brochures, including one ominously entitled “Root Canal.” On the cover was a picture of an attractive, smiling woman with straight white teeth. Hmmm — I have never met anyone who broke out into a wide smile upon learning that she needed a root canal.
Another brochure featured “Gum Disease.” That cover included four happily smiling people, all with perfect teeth. Hmm again! I have never come across anyone who smiled upon learning that they had gum disease and would need lots of unpleasant and expensive dental care. And so it was with all the other brochures, each describing a dental procedure, and each featuring a smiling face on the cover.
I suppose the creators of these brochures wanted to put a positive spin on dental work, and did not want to show patients groaning in agony. But to show pictures of smiling people is surely misleading, if not just plain false.
We realize that the people in the pictures are paid models. They aren’t really having gum disease or root canals. They are not portraying reality, but are creating a positive image for PR purposes.
But instead of convincing us to be happy, these smiling models strike us as con artists. Anyone who smiles brightly while contemplating root canal work is not someone who can be trusted to have good judgment.
This brings us to this week’s Torah portion.
Moshe knows he will not be leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. He pleads with the Almighty to appoint his successor, a leader “who will go out before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Bamidbar 27:17). Rashi explains that Moshe is asking for a leader who will take responsibility, who will be in the front lines of battle and not sit back at home while others do the fighting. Seforno adds that the leader should not only be involved in war, but should also be personally and actively engaged in the day-to-day management of the people. Other commentators note that Moshe is calling for a shepherd, a person who tends the flock with great care and who is held responsible for any losses.
Moshe is seeking a leader who will be genuine, reliable and trustworthy. He asks for a leader who takes personal responsibility for each member of the community. He wants a real leader, not a false image of a leader. He wants a leader with an honest countenance, not one with a fake smile. He wants someone who actually believes in his mission, not someone who pretends to be a leader and goes through the motions for PR purposes.
Many contemporary social critics have lamented the shortage of honest, sincere, authentic leaders. Politicians are widely perceived as self-serving egotists. Leaders in religious life, academia, and the business world have all fallen in esteem in the eyes of the public; they are viewed as petty, power hungry or manipulative. Instead of being shepherds who genuinely care about their flocks, the worst among them tend to care more about their own honors and emoluments.
Happily, though, we are blessed with examples of authentically sincere, hard-working and selfless individuals who put the community’s interests above their own, who are genuine shepherds rather than con artists.
G-d informed Moshe that He would appoint Yehoshua as his successor. Yehoshua is described as a man “in whom the spirit resides.” He had demonstrated the qualities of courage, the ability to stand up against the crowd, loyalty to Moshe and to the entire public. He was endowed with “the spirit” — i.e. integrity, authenticity, selflessness. Yehoshua could be trusted; he was genuine.
We often come across people who are as untrustworthy and unconvincing as the smiling faces on the cover of the root canal brochure. Less often do we meet people of the caliber of Yehoshua.
But it is the Yehoshuas of the world who we admire, respect and trust. It is they — and only they — who are worthy to be our friends and our leaders.