Friday, June 11, 2021

Servant Leadership

Let's call a spade a spade. The narrative of this week's Parsha is utterly depressing. The (arguably) most exceptional Jewish leader of all time, Moshe faces an uprising against his leadership. The rebellion, which started with some grumbling and resulted in a full-out assault on the communal structure, was led by a cousin of Moshe who, prior to that moment, was well respected and devout. Korach declared, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy; every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then, do you set yourselves above God's congregation!"  This criticism deserves careful analysis. After all, Korach was correct in his assessment that the entire congregation was holy and G-d was with everyone. If that indeed was the case, why was the challenge to Moshe an illegitimate one? The commentaries point out that there was nothing wrong with stating their position that everyone is holy. Everyone stood at Mt. Sinai and heard from G-d that you are a holy nation. The dangerous error was the latter part of the statement, "why do you set yourselves above G-d's congregation.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following on this subject: "The most famous buildings in the ancient world were the Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These were more than just buildings. They were statements in stone of a hierarchical social order. They were wide at the base and narrow at the top. At the top was the king or pharaoh – at the point, so it was believed, where heaven and earth met. Beneath was a series of elites, and beneath them the laboring masses. This was believed to be not just one way of organizing a society but the only way. The very universe was organized on this principle, as was the rest of life. The sun ruled the heavens. The lion ruled the animal kingdom. The king ruled the nation. That is how it was in nature. That is how it must be. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled.[2] Judaism is a protest against this kind of hierarchy. Every human being, not just the king, is in the image and likeness of God. Therefore no one is entitled to rule over any other without their assent. There is still a need for leadership because without a conductor an orchestra would lapse into discord. Without a captain, a team might have brilliant players and yet not be a team. Without generals, an army would be a mob. Without government, a nation would lapse into anarchy. "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 17:6). In a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of heaven, a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people, and he serves God. The great symbol of biblical Israel, the menorah, is an inverted pyramid or ziggurat, broad at the top, narrow at the base. The greatest leader is therefore the most humble. This model of leadership has been the hallmark of effective Jewish leadership throughout the ages. About 100 years ago, a very impactful Rabbi and educator in Eastern Europe championed this approach. His name was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was also known as the Alter of Slabodka. His philosophy was not to create a group of followers but rather to cultivate and create a new generation of leaders. Years later, his namesake, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel became the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yerushalayim. Under his leadership, the Mir Yeshiva grew to the largest in the world with thousands of students under his tutelage. I was fortunate to be one of the students with my arrival in Israel in 1997. His leadership was all about working to facilitate opportunities for his students to reach vicissitudes of greatness. His impact was not limited to the students enrolled in the Mir Yeshiva. His sphere of influence reached many different parts of the globe. One of the individuals who was touched by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel's leadership was Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks. Schultz penned an op-ed in the New York Times about the lessons in leadership he learned from the sage. He wrote the following: A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further. "I've never been closer than this," the Rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why. "You go," he said. "I'm not worthy."   From Moshe onward, our most outstanding leaders taught us the value of servant leadership. This notion of a leader is to serve the people. The grave mistake of Korach was his flawed understanding of leadership. He didn't understand that those who serve do not lift themselves high. They serve to lift other people high. That was the educational philosophy of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He was a leader who was not looking to have followers. He was a leader looking to create great leaders. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

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