True Leadership Qualities

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida

Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once said: “I learned the meaning of brotherly love and sensitivity from a drunk. I once passed two drunkerds drinking in a gutter and overheard the following conversation between them:  
Misha: ‘I love you!’

Grisha: ‘No you don't.’

Misha: ‘Yes, yes, I do. I love you with all my heart.’

Grisha: ‘No you don't. If you love me so much then tell me what it is that irks me!’”

“And he observed their burdens . . .” (Exodus 2:11): “There are those Tzaddikim that come to the Jews and see only sin and iniquity. When Moshe went out to his brothers he saw only their pains and burdens, not their vices and iniquities. (Oneg Shabbos)

The story is told of a disconcerted man who approached his Rebbe demanding an immediate audience. “Rebbe,” said the man, “I had a dream that I am a Rebbe, I don’t know what to do.” “There is no reason to fret,” replied the Rebbe with a gentle smile, “We all have strange dreams sometimes.” The dreamer left relaxed by the Rebbe’s assurances.

But lo, not even a week has elapsed and the man was back. “Rebbe I had another dream that I am a Rebbe, this is the second dream in less than a week. I don’t think it can be ignored.” “My dear fellow,” said the Rebbe, “I guarantee you there no reason for concern. Sometimes we dream at night what we think about during the day. If you were to stop giving this matter so much thought during the day, I am pretty confident that the dreams will go away.”  Again the dreamer was calmed by the words of the Rebbe, only to return a few days later with the same dilemma.

Seeing that he was not getting through to the man, the Rebbe said. “Let me tell you how it works: As long as you are the one dreaming that you are a Rebbe, you are not a Rebbe. When your Chassidim will dream that you are a Rebbe then you are indeed a Rebbe!”

What are the true qualities of leadership and how does a leader emerge? To answer this question it must be noted that the method of rising to leadership is starkly different in Judaism than in most all other systems of government.

For the better part of history, leadership has been obtained through the abuse of power and corruption. This method continues to prevail in a majority of the world today. Even in the more civilized parts of the globe where democracy exists in one form or another, the political process leaves much to be desired. The fact is that the finest political systems in the universe are fraught with criminals and the abuse of power, hence the adage, “Government is a necessary evil.”

Additionally, just about every democratic form of government acknowledges a distinction between the personal character of an elected or appointed official and his or her public office. “Your private life is your private life,” we are often reminded, “It is one’s professional life that is subject to examination and scrutiny.” This ideology has led to a long list of leaders who are morally bankrupt yet are perfectly accepted by the masses to lead.

From its earliest inception, Judaism has maintained a complete different set of standards for its leaders. There is no better place to gain insight into the Torah’s perspective on leadership and its requisite qualities than the emergence of Moshe Rabeinu, the first and consummate Jewish leader. Moshe’s début is made in the beginning of the book of Shemos, Exodus, which is read this week.

In the very first narrative about Moshe, beyond the selected tales of his infancy, the Torah relates: “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and he observed their burdens . . .” (Exodus 2:11).

As he ventured forth he encountered a sadistic Egyptian taskmaster brutally beating a Jewish laborer. Overcome with compassion, Moshe struck down the Egyptian tormentor and buried the corpse in the sand, unaware that he had been observed.

The next day, Moshe witnessed two Hebrews quarreling. “Villain!” he cried, “Why do you strike your fellow Jew?” They turned to Moshe with disdain and said, “So what do you propose to do? Will you murder us as you murdered the Egyptian?” “Aha, the thing is known,” cried Moshe in horror. At that moment Moshe’s status as a refugee began.

Moshe did not grow up among the Jewish people. During the decree of infanticide, an Egyptian princess had discovered him hidden among the bulrushes of the Nile River and reared him as her own. The young lad, who spent his youth in Pharaoh's palace, did not have to identify with the misery of the enslaved Hebrews. He was after all a royal heir. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by sticking his neck out.

If his conscience got the better of him, he could have found many rationalizations for the predicament of the Hebrew slaves and why they deserved their punishment. He would not even have had to look all that far. It is well known that the Jewish people sunk to the 49th level of impurity – immersed in many of the practices of their Egyptian masters, including idol worship.

Yet, notwithstanding his life of luxury and opulence, the thought of his people enslaved and oppressed, gave Moshe no rest. As soon as he was old enough he set out to see the plight of his brothers and “observe their burdens.” As Rashi comments on the words "And he observed their burdens:”‘He focused his eyes and heart so as to feel their suffering and grieve for them.’”

Moshe, who had been spared the anguish and misery of his Jewish brethren, could have remained aloof and oblivious, not accepting their burden as his own. It was for this reason, explains the Midrash that Moshe was chosen to be the Redeemer of Israel and to lead his people out from Egyptian bondage. It is this character trait, the sensitivity towards others and the ability to share in their anguish and plight that, qualified him to be the first and foremost Jewish leader.

First impressions are almost always last impressions. Moshe’s first actions surely typify his future distinction as a sensitive and caring leader.

The following story keenly portrays the lesson derived from Moshe's conduct – the trait of recognizing the pain of others and not their faults and then rising to the occasion even at self expense.  

During the month of Elul, a renowned Maggid (traveling preacher) arrived in the town of Reb Shmuel Munkes, a noted disciple of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi. Seeing the letter of approbation lauding him as a Tzaddik who is wont to forgo his own comforts in order to wander from town to town for the sole purpose of arousing and inspiring fellow Jews, the townspeople immediately invited him to preach and inspire them towards higher levels of spirituality.

In the course of his sermon the Maggid repeatedly berated his audience accusing them of terrible sins. His described in vivid detail the severe punishment awaiting them due to their evil behavior. The townspeople were utterly heartbroken by the Maggid's harsh words. Anticipating the Divine retribution about to befall them, they wailed bitterly.

Upon conclusion, the Maggid, rather satisfied with his oratory talent, retired to the room that the community had arranged for him. No sooner had he made himself comfortable, then a man with a long knife and sharpening stone in hand entered his room. To his utter surprise, the armed visitor was none other than Reb Shmuel himself.

Bolting the door shut, Reb Shmuel proceeded to sharpen his knife without saying a word. After a few tense moments, the Maggid broke the silence. With an astonishing look on his face he asked what this was all about.

Without glancing up from his rigorous knife sharpening activity, Reb Shmuel answered in mock sincerity: "As the honorable Maggid knows, we are very simple people in this town. Perhaps, it is because of our wanton sins that we have never merited having a great, righteous, G‑d fearing scholar in our midst."

Not knowing what to make of this answer, the Maggid replied, "Yes, that is true. Still, what does that have to do with the knife?"

Reb Shmuel retorted, "We were taught by our parents that before Rosh Hashanah one should pray at the grave sites of the righteous." Still unsure of Reb Shmuel's point, the Maggid continued, "That is correct. But why are you sharpening that knife?"

"Oh that, it's rather simple," explained Reb Shmuel in a calm tone. "The nearest grave site of a Tzaddik is very far from our town. It is extremely cumbersome for most of us to make such a long journey."

By now the Maggid was beginning to feel uneasy. As beads of sweat started to drip down his temples he ventured: "But you still have not explained the purpose of the knife!" Reb Shmuel answered, "What don't you understand? It's very plain; I am sharpening my knife because the townspeople want a righteous person buried in this town."

By now, Reb Shmuel's sinister intentions were more than obvious. "But I am not completely righteous stammered the Maggid. Come to think of it, I have committed some small sins here and there; of course they were inadvertent. . ."

Reb Shmuel dismissed the Maggid's confession: "Honored Maggid, you are still a very righteous and learned person. As for the sins that you mentioned, I did not even know that these were transgressions. You are probably just being very humble."

The Maggid continued in a stutter; "Come to think of it, some of my transgressions were a bit more serious, such as…" These too, Reb Shmuel shrugged off. "To us you are still a great Tzaddik. You are more than adequate. Besides, you're the best we have."

This strange dialogue continued for some time with the Maggid admitting to more and more severe transgressions and Reb Shmuel telling him that he was still acceptable, as he was far better than them.

Finally the Maggid confessed to some rather hefty and embarrassing transgressions. He revealed that in truth he was not at all the great Tzaddik that he portrayed himself to be.

Now Reb Shmuel no longer played the simpleton. After putting away the knife, he began chastising the Maggid for causing the Jews of the town so much anguish and sorrow.

After making sure the Maggid fully understood how one is to treat another Jew, Reb Shmuel unbolted the door and sent the Maggid on his way, a much wiser and more sensitive man than the one that had arrived.

Life presents constant opportunities to identify with the anguish and distress of our fellow Jews. We should constantly seek out those in need of empathy and search for opportunities to help bear the burden of a Jew in need. Often the greatest kindness we can do for someone who is suffering is to merely accept their pain upon ourselves as our own. In doing so, we will merit to see the ultimate redemption of our holy nation and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty.