Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Walk ARticle



Rabbi David Walk


In this election year, there is a lot talk about leadership, what are the most important criteria, and, of course, who best represents those attributes? There's a fascinating article by Dr. Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, about leadership. He claims that there are five major myths about leadership, and they are: 1. Great leaders are born, not made; 2. Leadership and management are fundamentally different; 3. Successful leadership is about power and control; 4. Men make better leaders — that's why most great leaders are men; and 5. There is a shortage of great leaders today. He debunks all of these widely held ideas. But I'm most interested in number three, because I've always believed that the best leaders are those who display the exact actions and behavior that they demand from everyone else. One of the first leadership seminars I went to as an NCSY adviser prominently advocated that the best leaders are those who behave like the best followers. I remember as a member of NCSY many years ago hearing another high school kid saying that he would like to be an adviser so that he could talk during the services. At first I thought that was funny, but it's really sad, because high position demands high performance. And, not surprisingly, this week's parsha discusses some of the most important requirements of leadership.

Mirroring the melancholy verses from two weeks ago that described the death of Aharon, we have the description of Moshe handing over the reins of leadership to Yehoshua. When Aharon ascended the mountain to expire he placed the garments of office upon his son Eliezer. Then Eliezer stood before the entire community in the priestly raiment for all to see the transition of office. In our Torah reading it's a bit different. Yehoshua stands before Eliezer and the entire congregation. He is shown to the nation in the presence of the Cohen Gadol and previous leader, before the private ceremony with his beloved mentor, Moshe. The priesthood does not require the assent of the people; political and military leadership does.

This proto-democratic reality is forcefully presented in an otherwise difficult verse. Moshe begs God to appoint a replacement who will: go forth 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 (Numbers 27:17). What's this 'go forth' then 'come before them,' and 'lead them out' then 'bring them in'?  Isn't this just saying the same thing twice? According to Rashi, the first expression means that the leader should go personally to war with the nation as opposed to gentile kings who send others to do the dirty work. The second set of phrases teaches us that leadership should be the result of merit. It takes virtue to lead the Jewish nation.   Nice ideas, but I don't think that's what the verse is driving at.

Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, on the other hand explains the seeming repetition as a call for leadership which understands the needs of the people, a very democratic principle.   Historically, kings and emperors considered their domains as private property.  Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France famously (but obnoxiously) proclaimed L'etat c'est moi, the state, that's me.   Rabbi Sacks explained the brace of verses in the following way: The first part was for someone who would lead from the front, setting a personal example of being unafraid to face new challenges. That is the easier part. The second request – for someone who would "lead them out and bring them in" – is harder. A leader can be so far out in front that when he turns round he sees that no one is following.  Leaders should bring about change, but only the level of change for which the populace is ready.

The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Rabbi Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar, 1696-1743) wrote concerning this topic:  When it says 'go forth before them' it means that the leader should have the willingness to lead them, while when it says 'who will lead them out,' it means that the people have the willingness to follow him as well (comment on the previous verse, 27:16).  The holy rabbi demands that there be mutual love between the leader and the people.  We're not just electing an impersonal manager of the body politic; we're making a shiduch.  There are, of course, other requirements for good leaders, but this bottom line of mutual love, respect and concern must be present for the other necessities to become relevant.

Let's go back to Prof. Riggio's list and the especially repugnant proposition number three.  This concept that leadership is about power and control is sadly very widespread.   However, he explains that effective leadership isn't always good leadership.  Hitler, Stalin and Mao were effective leaders, but, I hope, no one would consider them good leaders.  Dr. Riggio explains two criteria which must be present for good leaders.  They are ethical.  They don't lie, cheat or break rules to get ahead.  And they also don't leave followers exhausted, damaged, or demoralized.  Added to that, good leaders make everyone stronger and better, for a sustainable future.  In other words good leaders must be personally moral and care deeply for the people they lead.   As opposed to Louis XIV, good leadership is more about the led than about the leader.

I believe that our verse, as explained by the Ohr Hachayim, says all that, but adds one more critical criterion.  The followers must also want to be led by this individual.  I guess that's what a fair election is about. Moshe and Yehoshua had all these qualifications.  But the Torah isn't just relating the events of the past, it is teaching us how to behave in the future.  I pray that the two countries I feel so very deeply about, Israel and the United States of America, will be blessed with such leaders, and the citizens will have the sense to choose wisely.


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