A friend once invited me to join him and several other guests on a day sail off the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. After his rhapsodic description of the classic sailboat and his praise of the captain whom I was going to be fortunate enough to meet, I could hardly accept quickly enough. My enthusiasm ran high as we gently glided out of Cape Town harbor and beyond the sheltering mass of famous Table Mountain.
They only renamed the Cape of Good Hope because its original name, the Cape of Storms, terrified early sailors discouraging them from signing on to crew the ships of the Dutch East Indian Company. That afternoon it lived up to its original name. The winds howled, the waves tossed around our seventy-foot masterpiece of teak wood and canvas and we all struggled mightily to reduce the sail and bring the powerful vessel under control.
Strangely enough, the captain who had been resplendent in his smart blazer and cap during the calm first hour while offering drinks and regaling us with his adventures, was nowhere to be seen. We were all too busy (and frightened) to wonder where he was. In his absence, we did our best trying to learn one another’s strengths and skills as we exerted our last ounces of energy defeating the wind and water. Once we were finally through the storm and calmly ghosting back into the harbor our captain reappeared in full regalia and blusteringly explained to our exhausted little group everything we had done wrong. I whispered to my friend that I had just gained an unforgettable lesson in what leadership was not.
Leadership means being there with your people during the storms and wars of life.
Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites. Moses began his career when God appeared to him at the Burning Bush (Exodus chapter 3) and Joshua started his when Moses appointed him in accordance with God’s directive. (Numbers chapter 27)
A notable difference between the launch of these two careers is that Moses is instructed to remove his shoes at the very start of his conversation with God.
… Remove your sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
Joshua isn’t told to remove his shoes until five chapters into the Book named for him.
… Remove your sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy. And Joshua did so.
Shoes (like pants) haven’t changed their function for thousands of years. Neckties come and go; hats, scarves and jackets sometimes have nothing to do with keeping warm, but regardless of their appearance or style shoes have always served to keep people’s feet off the ground.
The concept is that God created humans not as another kind of animal and not as an angel, but as something in between. He created us as creatures exquisitely suspended between earth and heaven, which is to say, between the spiritual and the material. We are not supposed to be so spiritual that we reject the joys of life and disdain its pleasures. Neither are we supposed to be so material that physical pleasure is all we seek.
Walking barefoot on the ground suggests being so attached to the earthly that the heavenly and spiritual are way beyond our grasp. On the other hand, think of levitation. Whether in Christianity, Hinduism or some Hassidic sects of Judaism, the idea that super-spiritual and saintly personalities could spontaneously hover above the earth was quite popular. In reality, God says, don’t walk on the ground; you’re not animals. But don’t levitate above the ground either; you’re not angels. Instead find your equilibrium between heaven and earth by standing on a layer of leather or rubber which keeps you just above, but not too far above, the earth
Here are two times when shoes are removed:
1. When God speaks to someone as He did with Moses at the Burning Bush and with Joshua outside the walls of Jericho, the incandescent Divine power can be too overwhelming. It can sweep the mortal heavenwards leaving him ill-equipped to continue normal life and fulfill his mission. The antidote is to anchor oneself firmly to earth by removing shoes.
2. During the first week of mourning for a close family member, the grief and the weakening, but still palpable spiritual connection with the soul of the departed, can easily dislodge the mourner from his normal position of spiritual-material balance. Again, the antidote is to eschew shoes during that week, allowing the mourner to engage in the process of returning to the normality of life on earth as a living person.
This leaves us with the question of why Moses’ overwhelming encounter with God came right at the beginning of his life work while Joshua doesn’t encounter God’s angel until just before the attack on Jericho.
In order to make sense of this, we should examine Moses’ entreaty to God to appoint his successor. He specifically wants Israel’s new leader to be someone…
…who shall go out before them and come in before them,
and who shall take them out and bring them back in.
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that this verse refers to military leadership. Moses wanted a leader capable of leading the nation through the many wars awaiting them as they conquered the Promised Land.
However, he did not want the future leader to be someone who sent Israel off to war from the comfort of his palace. He insisted on a leader who would go with his people onto the battlefield and bring them safely home again.
After being appointed in Numbers 27, Joshua’s first battle is the imminent attack on Jericho. God now appears to assure him that if he follows instructions, the war will be won. This precisely parallels God appearing to Moses at the Burning Bush and assuring him that he will successfully lead Israel out of Egypt.
A real leader’s role is neither ceremonial nor symbolic; it is to be together with his people, helping them overcome and survive the frightening challenges that accompany all levels of achievement. Each day, among our families and friends and in our business or professional lives, there are wars to be fought and won. Every meaningful goal to which we aspire requires a hard fight. It’s almost as if we can actually feel the universe resisting our efforts. Being right there with those we lead is the task. Helping them vanquish the enemy and bringing them home safely again is what leadership means.
I later discovered that our captain was far better known for telling tall tales around yacht club bars than for any real sailing prowess. For really helpful leadership lessons, ignore the showy people in flashy clothing and study Biblical figures like Joshua.