Friday, June 13, 2008

Derashah: Behaalotcha - Ode to the Humble Shul Board Member

This week is our shul's annual meeting and election of officers, and one of the goals of this derashah is to honor those who serve on our shul board.

Now we’re down to two, Senators McCain and Obama, both claiming to have the tools of leadership, both claiming to be men of integrity, both claiming unyielding commitment to the good of this country. How do we choose between them?

We might choose based on track record. We might choose based on specific issues - Israel, healthcare, education, defense, etc. From a close reading of our parshah, though, I see one more criteria: The best leader is the one who knows his own inadequacies.

We naturally gravitate to humble leaders, and that’s one reason these candidates have made it this far, but selecting humble leadership is about more than human psychology - it’s a religious ideal writ large in the life of Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader we've ever known.

Moshe Rabbeinu, in the first two years of his career, resigned no fewer than three times - each time due to his own feelings of inadequacy for the task at hand.

• The first time was in the desert, at the סנה בוער באש, the Burning Bush, when he said, מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה, Who am I to address the Pharaoh, who am I to lead an exodus from Mitzrayim?

• The second time was after the חטא העגל, the Golden Calf, when HaShem threatened to destroy the nation and begin again with Moshe, and Moshe said, “Better to kill me, too,” for I have failed as their leader.

• And the third time is in our parshah, when the Jews complain about their desert life and Moshe declares to Gd, “I can’t take care of this nation; if you’re going to have me continue in this job, just take my life now!”

Three attempted resignations, all surrounding the same theme: Moshe felt he could not serve the nation’s needs.

Moshe’s humble approach to leadership continues when he is told to share his authority with other elders. HaShem says explicitly that these new leaders will diminish Moshe’s status; He says, ואצלתי מן הרוח אשר עליך ושמתי עליהם, I will take some of the Divine inspiration that has been yours, and place it upon them. But Moshe wholeheartedly embraces the concept - he has no fear of sharing authority to aid the nation.

Second, the midrash records that two brothers, Eldad and Meidad, proclaimed in the midst of the Jewish camp that Moshe would die, and Gd would appoint Yehoshua as the next leader. Yehoshua himself, horrified, turned to Moshe and pleaded “כלאם, Jail them!” But Moshe replied, “I wish all of the nation would become prophets!”

Moshe has no fear of his own demise and the end of his reign; he leads at the convenience of the people, as determined by Gd, and he is fully prepared to see the end of his reign come.

It is this humility, this sense of his own abilities and their limits, that makes Moshe fit to lead. It is not for nothing that Moshe is described as עניו מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה, the most humble man on earth.

Later Jewish leaders also exemplified this trait:

When שמואל הנביא came to coronate Shaul, the prophet couldn’t find him. He inquired, Where is this man? And he was told, הנה הוא נחבא אל הכלים, Him? He’s hiding out in the shed. Shaul considered himself unworthy, so much so that people questioned the wisdom of Shemuel’s decision, saying, מה יושיענו זה, this is the one who is going to save us?!

Fast-forward to the selection of Dovid haMelech, and again, Shemuel comes to anoint a new king, but the new king is nowhere to be found. All of Yishai’s sons are present, but Dovid is out with the sheep; he doesn’t imagine himself a king.

I might think that a leader would specifically need to lack humility; how can a person guide others, if he isn’t sure of himself? But humility is important in a leader for two reasons: Practicality, and Religion.

First, Practicality: Humility limits the possibility that a leader will ignore the needs and input of others.

Rabbi Yochanan prescribed, in the name of R’ Shimon ben Yehotzadak: אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו, we don’t appoint a leader unless he has some embarrassment lurking in the shadows, something which will remind him of his own weaknesses, to keep him in line.

Writing in 13th century France, R’ Menachem Meiri expanded on that theme, writing, “We do not appoint a leader unless he is known to be עניו ושפל רוח וסבלן, humble and patient, because he will need to function in different ways for different constituencies and be loved by each of them, each according to its own needs. And if they cannot find such a person, and they must appoint אבירי לב ועזי מצח, people of tougher, brasher spirit, they should be careful not to appoint people who are too arrogant, such that they believe they will hold that power forever, and that they are the best-suited for the job.”

Second, Religion: Humility recognizes that the leader is not selected based on his own righteousness, but rather based upon a Divine plan.

HaShem told Moshe as much when He said to Moshe at the סנה, You go lead, ואנכי אהיה עם פיך ועם פיהו, I will be with you and with Aharon, to help you do the job. Esther recognized the same thing, insisting on national prayer before she would venture to approach Achashverosh on behalf of the nation.

Judaism does believe in the Divine Right of the King, but not as a product of the king’s personal virtue; rather, HaShem has deemed the leader the person of the moment, and HaShem is the source of his every triumph.

So when it comes to choosing a leader, we seek not only flights of rhetoric or decorated military careers, wonkish brilliance or legions of experienced advisers. Atop all of these qualities, we seek a leader who understands that he serves at the convenience of Gd and the nation, and who believes - truly, sincerely, authentically believes - that his service is not a product of his own genius but rather of community necessity.

The ideal Jewish leader, like Moshe, like Shaul and like Dovid, does not harbor an answer for every question, does not have a neat position paper addressing every circumstance, but does own the ability to acknowledge his flaws.

But beyond presidency and monarchy, this need for humility applies to all levels of leadership, including shul leadership. Even regarding the שליח ציבור who leads the davening, the gemara records that even the שליח ציבור, the chazan, must refuse humbly when asked to lead the davening, accepting only if the offer is extended a second time.

Which brings me to our shul board, a collection of men and women who do their best, day after day, for our community. They are rarely acknowledged for their work, but all of us live in their debt, for they make all of this possible.

This week, on Thursday evening at 7 PM, we will be having the shul’s annual meeting, at which new board members and officers are elected, and we hear reports from the heads of different shul departments.

To be blunt: If you are able, please come to the meeting.

I know that a lot of people don’t go because nothing interesting ever happens at these meetings. As it happens, this year there may be controversy; I plan to speak on some challenges we are facing, and I plan to address what may fairly be called the Third Rail of shul politics. But aside from that, this is our chance to honor the humble men and women who serve our shul on its board.

It’s not traditional for a rabbi to like his shul board, but I can say in all sincerity that I am very confident in our leadership. We are privileged to have men and women who come to meetings ready to serve what they perceive to be the shul’s best interests, and who work hard on projects between meetings, to help move our shul forward. We have people who work on the shul’s physical plant, people who work on education, people who work on social programming, people who work on finances, people who work on administrative issues. To a one, all of them devote significant time and energy to the greater good, humbly and without fanfare. So on Thursday, please make some time to honor them and thank them for their work, by coming to the meeting. I look forward to seeing you there.

1. My explanation of Moshe's rationale for מחני נא מספרך is, of course, not the only approach.

2. The Torah's text indicates Moshe will lose some of his רוח הקודש when the others gain it, but see Rashi to Bamidbar 11:17.

3. On Moshe's humble approach, see also Sanhedrin 8a on the difference between HaShem's counsel to Yehoshua and Moshe's counsel to Yehoshua, כי אתה תבוא את העם הזה vs כי אתה תביא את העם הזה.

4. The selection of Shaul is in Shemuel I 10, the selection of Dovid is in Shemuel I 16.

5. The quote about קופה של שרצים is from Yoma 22b, and the Meiri's comment is on that gemara.

6. The little-practiced law of the chazan [most don't refuse at all, or refuse altogether too much] is found on Berachot 34a.


  1. Thanks for your ode to the board member. My husband is one of those; I can't say the board members in our shul are actually elected; it's more like whoever is competent and loyal and doesn't know how to say 'no' is drafted to the board.

    Yes, the phenomenon of the humble leader does seem to be uniquely Jewish, doesn't it? Maybe the Hindus have something similar, but I'm sure it has a different, pagan-like twist to it.

  2. I'm not sure I would agree. I think humility in a leader automatically triggers trust, as an element of human nature. And even the religious component may be found elsewhere; Christianity certainly stresses humility as a religious ideal (although borrowed from us...).

  3. Leora, yes, our "election" process is much like that.

    Rabbi, perhaps you've stumbled on a great internal marketing tactic - controversy (plus cookies, of course) should guarantee a packed house. :)

    It's a good thing our by-laws don't include a quorum for making congregational votes legitimate, or we'd never have one.