During Jethro´s visit to the Israelite cam, he notices long lines of people waiting to bring their disputes before Moses. Sitting alone from morning until evening, Moses listens to each argument, hears each problem and states his judgement on each situation brought before him. Jethro is astounded. “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? He asks Moses. Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”
In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah of Akko detected a dangerous element of conceit in Moses, why –he asks- did Moses tell Jethro that “the people are coming to me” instead of saying that “the people are coming to God”? Rabbi Judah’s question raises other questions about Moses. Did he believe that he was superior to his people or even to God in helping them to solve their problems? Was he beginning to assume that he alone had the wisdom to advise them?
Rabbi’s Judah’s questions seem to imply that Jethro was upset with Moses because he saw him losing his humility; becoming a pompous leader who believed only he could make decisions for his people. For that reason, Rabbi Judah argues, Jethro criticized Moses and told him to find others with whom to share the responsibilities of leadership.
“If you meet the Buddha on the road” the Zen master teaches the disciple, “kill him”. Do not let any human being become the measure of your life. Eliminate whatever you would be tempted to idolize, no matter how worthy the object. The role of the spiritual leader, in other words, is not to do martinets out of people; it is to lead them to spiritual adulthood where they themselves make the kind of choices that give life depth and quality. Doing what the rabbi says is not the goal of Judaism. Following the leader is not the end for which we are made; finding God is.
In our own culture, becoming someone important, climbing the corporate and congregational ladder has so often meant pleasing the person at the top rather than doing what conscience demands or the situation requires. That kind of leadership is for its own sake. It makes the guru, rather than the Torah, the norm of life. That kind of authority is not Jewish and it is not spiritual. That kind of authority so often leads to the satisfaction of the system more than to the development of the person. That kind of authority breeds Watergate and My Lai.
In 1950, in the first talk the Rebbe of lubavitch gave upon assuming leadership of the Lubavitcher movement he said “Our faith demands that everyone must do good on his own, and not depend on his rebbe. Do not deceive yourselves into thinking that I will lead and you will engage only in singing songs and that that will be enough. Each of you has your own load, your own battle. I do not decline from helping, but nothing –even heaven- can replace personal responsibility.”
Judaism wants a community that is led, but not driven.
The concept is clear: people are not acquitted of the responsibility for their own soul. Personal decisions are still decisions, personal judgements are still judgements, free will is still free will.
Perhaps the most important result of a model of authority like this is the environment it creates. The synagogue is not a royal court, a military barrack or a detention home. The role of leadership is not to make lackeys or foot soldiers or broken children out of adult Jews.
The Purpose of Judaism is to gather equally committed adults for a journey through life to a dazzling light that already flames in each of us, but in a hidden place left to each of us to find. The function of authority is not to control the other, it is to guide and to challenge and to enable the other. Jewish leadership is a commitment to that, a promise of that
A midrash on Genesis points out: “God prefers your deeds to your ancestor’s virtues” We are not here simply to follow someone else. Being part of something good does not automatically make us good. What we do with our own lives is the measure of their value. We are here to learn to take ourselves in hand.
According to Jewish tradition, human beings can only fulfil themselves fully in relationship. Community is the place of our relationships. Furthermore, Judaism as a civilization can be experienced solely in community, can be passed on effectively only through community. Building and sustaining communities is critical to human fulfilment. As Jews we strive to create communities that manifest justice, holiness and peace.
The function of the leader, in the context of this Jewish value then is to call each individual to become more tomorrow than they were today. The point of that is not how the calling is to be done, with firmness or tenderness or persuasion or discipline. The point here is simply that the calling is to be done. The person who accepts a position of responsibility and milks it of its comforts but leaves the persons in a group no more spiritually stirred than when they began, is more to be criticized than the fruitless group itself. It was Eli, the father who did not correct his sinful sons, whom God indicts, not the sons alone.
The leaders of the synagogue, the rabbi and the officers of the board are to remember what they are and what they are called. What they are is clear: they are people just like everybody else in the community. They are only people who struggle and fail just like the people they lead.
There is a hassidic story that leaders may understand:
When in his 60th year after the death of the kotzker rabbi, the Gerer Rabbe accepted election as leader of the Kotzker hassidim, the rabbi said: “I should ask myself: “why have I deserved to become the leader of thousands of good people?” I Know that I am not more learned or more pious than other. the only reason why I accept the appointment is because so many good and true people have proclaimed me to be their leader. We find that a cattle-breeder in Israel during the days when the Temple stood was enjoined by our Torah (Lv 27:32) to drive newborn cattle or sheep in to an enclosure in single file. When they went to the enclosure, they were all of the same station, but when over the tenth one, the owner pronounced the words “Consecrated to the Lord” it was set aside for holier purposes. In the same fashion when the Jews pronounce some to be holier than their fellows they become in truth consecrated persons.”
Once chosen, it is their weaknesses itself that becomes the anchor, the insight, the humility, and the gift of a leader, a rabbi, a parent a teacher or a director, but only if they themselves embrace it. It is a lesson for leaders everywhere who either fear to lead because they know their own weaknesses or who lead defensively because they fear that other know their weaknesses. It is a lesson for parents who remember their own troubles as children. It is a lesson for husbands and wives who cannot own their weaknesses that plague their marriage. We must each strive for the ideal and we must encourage others to strive with us, not because we ourselves are not weak but because knowing our own weaknesses and admitting them we can with great confidence teach trust in the God who watches with patience our puny efforts and our foolish failures.