Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Are leaders born? Are they designated? Or does leadership come from somewhere deep within us – something that is self-generated. Our forefather Abraham taught us many things. But perhaps his most important teaching is that a leader isn’t something we are or something we’re given, it’s something we decide to be.
Where does leadership come from?
This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, opens with a call from G-d to Abraham to begin the great journey of establishing the Jewish people.
But, really, Abraham’s journey began before G-d spoke to him. In fact, he put himself on the path to becoming the founding father of the Jewish people. He created himself as a leader, undertaking a personal journey that required courage and integrity.
The Midrash relates how Abraham came to the realisation of a belief in one G-d, Who created the entire universe and is the sole source of life, energy and creativity in the world. Abraham had the strength of character to oppose the prevailing culture, rejecting the idolatry of his father and that entire generation, and bravely setting out to proclaim the truth of one G-d to the world.
He took the initiative. No one appointed him to that role. No one allocated him that task. He chartered a path born of his own faith, knowledge and insight, and only then did G-d reveal Himself, charging Abraham with a Divine mission and designating him the founding father of the Jewish people.
Abraham exemplifies the idea of assuming leadership and taking personal responsibility where others have not. As the mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “And in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.” (2:6) Rabbeinu Yona says that the mishna is talking about personal leadership – meaning that in a place where there are no teachers or role models – where inspiration is in short supply – a person needs to take the initiative and find personal inspiration and motivation to do good.
The Rambam explains that the Hebrew word we have translated as “strive” is actually connected to the word “struggle”. (See Genesis 32:25 for example: “And the man struggled with him.”) He says the journey to becoming a leader involves great personal struggle, grappling with our failings and blindspots. Digging deep within ourselves and finding the strength of character to become better people. Doing all the hard work necessary to refine our character and become the best possible version of ourselves.
Similarly, Rabbeinu Bechaya says about the mishna that if there is no one to teach you Torah, you need to teach yourself.
Abraham personifies this mishna. He spurred himself to great heights. He taught himself to lead. What a struggle it must have been to live in a generation whose ideals ran completely counter to his inner convictions. Yet he stood by them, and defied an entire culture.
The Midrash describes how Abraham began his own quest for truth after determining that idols had no independent power. Abraham was impressed by the might and splendour of the great luminaries in the sky, long worshipped as deities – but noted also that this might and splendour was short-lived: the sun setting every evening, the moon and stars only expressing their power at night.
Slowly but surely, Abraham meditated over the natural world, and with no one to guide him, found G-d through his own process of rational inquiry. And It was only after he had found G-d that G-d found him, charging him with his cosmic mission to found the Jewish people and change the course of humanity.
We see from Abraham’s example that leadership from a Torah point of view is a journey from the inside out. We first lead ourselves and then we begin to lead the people around us. We cannot aim to guide others when we lack direction ourselves.
The journey begins with the self – but it does not end there. Rabbi Yosef Yavetz in his commentary on this mishna says it is calling on a person to step forward and provide ethical, values-oriented Torah leadership to a community, if other “leaders” are not doing so. The Tiferet Yisrael expands on this idea, saying that – overwhelming as it seems – we should push ourselves and trust that G-d will bless our endeavours. After all, he says, the alternative – standing idly by and letting society drift, satisfied that we ourselves are following a righteous path – is unfeasible.
This is exactly the kind of leadership that Abraham exemplified. The Sforno in his commentary on Genesis (6:8) points to a significant difference between Abraham and Noah. When Noah saw the moral foundations of the society in which he lived crumbling, his efforts to turn it around were not as committed as they should have been. While he pointed out to people that their depravity, dishonesty and idolatry were creating an unsustainable society, he did not try and teach them to recognise G-d and strive for a better world.
Abraham, on the other hand, campaigned tirelessly for the truth after discovering it. And, as a result, he was successful in bringing people around, helping them recognise the true nature of reality and come to a belief in one G-d. Renowned for his hospitality, Abraham purposefully pitched his tent in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, the tent open on all four sides to maximise his interaction opportunities with wayfarers in order to positively influence them.
The Gemara relates a typical interaction: after inviting people in to rest, eat and drink, and ensuring these needs were satisfied, guests would express their gratitude to Abraham, at which he would respond: “Did you eat from what is mine? You ate from the food of the G-d of the world. You should thank and praise and bless the One who spoke and created the world.” (Gemara Sota, 10b)
Abraham’s extraordinary influence on society is conveyed at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The verse says that Abraham and Sarah took with them on their journey to Israel “the souls which they had made in Charan”. (Genesis 12:5) Rashi says that this unusual phrase refers to the people that Abraham and Sarah had inspired to relinquish their paganism and immorality and connect with G-d, embracing the ethical values that come with that. The Rambam writes that, in fact, Abraham recruited tens of thousands of followers.
In doing so, Abraham and Sarah exemplify another teaching of Pirkei Avot: “Establish many students.” (Avot 1:1) The Tiferet Yisrael says this is a call not only to people who have official positions of leadership, but to every single one of us – to teach and positively influence as many people as possible.
The mishna applies particularly to teaching Torah; we all have a responsibility, each on our own level, to teach it to others. We have to do so with integrity, within the acknowledged limits of our proficiency and skill. But the knowledge we do have, we need to own and share.
The Tiferet Yisrael says there is a particular responsibility to teach our families – to teach our husbands and wives and children. And there is nothing more beautiful than a family sitting around a table, sharing and learning and discussing Torah ideas. But it goes beyond this. We all have circles of influence, the people we come into contact with on a daily basis. And we have an obligation to reach out to them and lead both by example and by instruction. To be a leader is to deploy the influence we have on those around us – to teach, illuminate and make the world a better place.
The Torah’s definition of leadership does not ignore the reality of official roles, nor the need for them, but it goes further. The Tiferet Yisrael points out that often, it is specifically those people without an official capacity who have the greatest influence.
Ultimately, both mishnayot are a call to transition from passively following to actively participating in shaping the world around us. We are not passengers being taken to a destination. G-d wants each one of us to take ownership – to learn Torah and to share it far and wide, to positively influence whoever we can, to become leaders empowered to illuminate the world with His wisdom and uplift all of creation. Just as Abraham and Sarah did.
G-d chose Abraham and Sarah as the founders of the Jewish people. In doing so, these values of personal leadership, of taking responsibility to make the world a better place, of positively influencing people and spreading the light of G-d’s wisdom in the world, become the core ethos of the Jewish people.