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Power vs Service (Edited Transcript)

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Leadership is a very hot topic these days. Step in to any  bookshop and you will find a whole body of literature devoted to the concept – how to be a good leader in business, in politics, in all of life’s endeavours.  

It is strange that there is no corresponding literature within Torah sources.  The Torah does deal with leadership in an indirect way – we find many discussions of great leaders, our Forefathers and – mothers, Moshe, Aharon and Miriam – but there is no one body of codified literature solely about leadership.  No one actually addresses it head on and says, here is the secret to leadership.  Why?  

This week’s parsha gives us an answer to this question.  This week’s parsha is called Eikev, taken from the second word of the parsha, Vehaya eikev tishma’un et hamishpatim ha’eileh, “behold if you will listen and observe these laws.”  The parsha goes on to discuss reward and punishment and the importance of following Hashem’s commandments.  The word eikev, “if,” is an interesting choice of word because in Hebrew it also means “heel.”  The commentators discuss why specifically this word is used.  Rashi says that it refers to the commandments that people regard as unimportant and crush under their heel; stepping on something shows that you treat it with disrespect.  There are certain commandments which people view as not so important and they trample them under their heel, so to speak.  It says Vehaya eikev tishma’un to teach us that we must follow even those commandments which people sometimes regard as insignificant, because in the eyes of Hashem every mitzvah is important.   

Humility is the basis for all the commandments

The Baal HaTurim, one of our classic commentators from the Middle Ages, says that the heel represents humility because it walks behind the foot, symbolising that the foundation of all the commandments is humility.  The defining quality of Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader, was humility: Veha’ish Moshe anav meod mikol adam, Moshe was the most humble of all people.  The Torah describes Moshe not just as humble but very humble.  As we also know, lo kam k’Moshe od, there was no person – no leader or prophet – who ever reached the levels that Moshe Rabbeinu attained and yet he is described as the most humble.

We see from here that humility is the basis not only of all of the commandments but also of true leadership.  Moshe was our greatest leader and he is defined as being very humble.  This accords with the Rambam’s words that in all character traits we need to find the middle path, not going to either extreme, except when it comes to arrogance and anger which have no place; here, we must go to the extreme, never to get angry and to act with the utmost humility.  

Perhaps this is why there is no explicit discussion of the concept of leadership within Torah literature; busying ourselves with books about leadership and how to achieve it indicates that we hold ourselves in high regard, and in true Torah leadership there is no place for arrogance.

There is a passage in the Gemara, in Tractate Horiyot 10a and b, which describes how Rabbi Gamliel summoned two people to be appointed to a new leadership position and they didn’t come.  The commentators explain that the reason they did not come was because they were very humble and did not want the honour.  Rabbi Gamliel sent for them a second time and told them kimdumin atem she’srara ani noten lachem, avdut ani noten lachem, you think that I am giving you a position of power [and hence you didn’t come] but I am giving you avdut, service.  You are now servants of the people.  

The word manhigut, leadership, is a coinage of Modern Hebrew; there is no word in Classical Hebrew for the term “leadership” because such a term would imply a wish to lord over others and have followers.  A person who thinks of himself as a leader in the sense of lording over others has already moved into the realm of arrogance which prevents proper leadership from being exercised.  

We do have a leadership structure within Torah society: the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest; the Sanhedrin, the members of the High Court; we are taught the importance of giving honour to a Torah scholar; and we have the concept of the authority of a rabbi.  There are leadership positions in Judaism, but they are not positions of power, rather of service to the people.  Leadership is a service, an obligation toward the people; it is not about power and authority.

Leadership means responsibility  

Rav Shlomo Wolbe offers a much clearer understanding of what Torah leadership is; his understanding explains why the Jewish literature does not talk about leaders per se.  Leadership is about responsibility.  We are born, grow up and develop ourselves from a physical, emotional and  intellectual point of view, and as we do we take on more and more responsibility – getting a job, getting married, having children.  Each of these responsibilities requires us to give of ourselves to others.  Conventional wisdom maintains that as you give you diminish yourself.  This is why we find a lot of people today are getting married much later, some not getting married at all; people are having children much later, some not having children at all.  They feel that these responsibilities impinge on the fulfilment of their own dreams and happiness in this world because every extra person you have to take care of means there is less for yourself.  Sadly, conventional wisdom maintains that if you have to give of yourself to your spouse, your children and society at large, then you are diminished, and that if you don’t give of yourself, you can more freely be who you are.  

Rav Shlomo Wolbe offers a completely different perspective and says that we all come into this world with inherent potential which is only actualised when we stretch ourselves to do good, when we follow the mitzvot and take on responsibility.  We can only actualise our full potential, which is our purpose in this world, when we assume responsibility and care for others.  Life, says Rav Wolbe, is a step-by-step process of expanding who we are.  A person who is only looking after him- or herself is a very narrow, limited human being.  As we take on more responsibility – whether it’s earning a living, working on a marriage, having children, contributing to the community or keeping Hashem’s commandments – we expand ourselves because we now have to give to another person.  It is by expanding ourselves that we give full expression to who we are.

The following analogy clarifies this point: we are each born with the potential to have a certain amount of physical strength.  The more we train, however, the more our physical strength is brought out.  If we do not train and exert ourselves, then our latent physical strength is not actualised.  A fool would say the best way to keep that strength is to conserve it, not do any exercise or lift weights, and that if you hold on to it tightly you will be very strong.  But we know that Hashem has created the world in such a way that the physical strength only comes out when we exercise and feel the pain of exertion. The growing pains we feel with physical exertion are what strengthen us.

The same applies in the emotional and spiritual spheres as well.  Feeling the pain of self-sacrifice – be it in having to get up in the middle of the night to tend to a crying baby; handing in work; earning a living; being responsible for our workers or toward an employer; working on our marriage; learning to compromise and take another person’s needs into account – necessitates stretching beyond self.  Every time we stretch ourselves we grow and develop, becoming stronger and stronger.  Every time we keep the commandments we get stretched and are expanded.  The pain and stretch signal that we are becoming stronger and better people.

G-d put us on this earth to go through a process of self-development, bringing that potential into the realm of the actual within the framework of His commandments, His blueprint for how on how to live our lives.  As we grow and develop, our potential gets actualised and we expand, step by step.  

Shouldering the burden with others

Rav Wolbe quotes the words of our Sages in Ethics of the Fathers, regarding a crucial value called noseh b’ol im chaveiro, one should carry the burden with his friend.  We can say to someone I am here for you, I feel sorry for you that you have a terrible problem and I will do my best to help you, but all along there is a sense that this is the others’ problem, not our own.  Or we can carry it together with them such that they don’t feel they are carrying the problem alone.  Loneliness is one of the most debilitating feelings, especially when felt at times of crisis.  There is a subtle yet profound difference between helping someone and actually carrying the burden with them.  This is what noseh b’ol im chaveiro means – to actually shoulder the burden together with another. 

Rav Wolbe says our whole life is a process shouldering more and more responsibility.  We have responsibility to a spouse, children, community and ultimately, Hashem; when it says noseh b’ol im chaveiro, shouldering the burden with your fellow – that includes G-d.  Interestingly, Rashi in the Gemara in Shabbos says that the verse ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha “love your friend like yourself,” refers also to G-d, Who is our friend.  In other words, we carry the responsibilities that G-d wants us to carry in this world.  There are things in this world which are not perfect, which He wants us to fix.  Making the world a better place means we identify with G-d’s pain and shoulder it.

True leadership is about shouldering responsibility

We are all leaders, with different spheres of influence and different levels of responsibility.  A leader does not lord over others as a dictator, but rather expands the self to carry more and more people.  The greater the leader, the more people are being carried.  

This is why, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hebrew word for leader is adon, from the word adanim, the silver stands which held up the beams of the Tabernacle.  The task of a leader is to hold up the people.  We are all leaders and this is why the term leadership does not exist in Classical Hebrew.  Every one of us has a duty in this world, and we have a responsibility to carry those around us.  By expanding our sphere of influence and responsibility we become greater people.

Posted on 14 August 2014 in Text, Transcript

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