November 16, 2018

Follow the Leader

A yeshiva outgrew its downtown quarters and moved to the former site of an upstate boys’ academy. Finding a boathouse on the property, the Rosh Yeshiva called in one of the rabbis and ordered him to organize a rowing team.

“Rebbe, what do we know from rowing?” the rabbi asked.

“We can master Talmud, we can figure out rowing!” the rebbe said.

So the rabbi put together a team, and his young rowers began to practice on the river. Soon, they were good enough to challenge and beat a local prep school. They challenged another and won again. When they had beaten every school in the vicinity, the Rosh Yeshiva called the rabbi in again:

“Now, we’ll challenge Princeton!” he said.

“Princeton, Rebbe? We’ve been rowing six weeks; they’ve been at this 300 years!”

The rebbe insisted, and the race was set. Princeton won by 20 lengths.

The despondent rabbi was once again called in to the Rosh Yeshiva.

“How did they beat us so badly?” the rebbe asked.

“Rebbe, Princeton has a secret: They have eight men rowing and one man shouting.”

Some say there is a crisis of leadership in the Jewish community. But our real problem is not leadership. Our problem is followership. We have strong and wise leaders. We always have. But we have never been good followers. Why is it so difficult and frustrating to forge compromise and build consensus in the Jewish community? Why is peace, or even respect, so rare in Jewish communal discourse, even in the best of times? Is it the Jewish passion for principle over pragmatics, or our inborn individualism, or a deep suspicion of authority? “Jews are the only people in the world,” said Abba Eban, “who refuse to take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” Anyone who has served on the boards and committees that govern the Jewish community and its organizations knows how painfully true that is.

And it has been true from the very beginning. We see ourselves, in the words of the divine promise, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But if everyone is a priest and holy, who has authority to lead? This paradox lies at the heart of Jewish community life. And this is precisely the claim used against Moses and Aaron by the rebel Korach in this week’s Torah portion: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

A healthy community must preserve a delicate balance between authority and dissent, containing a diversity of opinion within a unity of action. The curse of Korach destroys the balance by rejecting the very possibility of communal leadership and shared direction.

This curse of Korach is perhaps best perceived in the way our differences of opinion on matters of principle and policy so quickly and seamlessly turn into vicious personal attacks. Martin Buber was mistaken. Beyond the relationships of I-It and I-Thou, posited by Buber, there is a third: I-You-@’$%&*)@’!!, which is heard all too frequently in our communal discourse. “I don’t merely object to the position you represent, or the job you’ve done…I object to you. You are inadequate, corrupt, lazy and unfaithful to the Jewish future!”

Here is the source of our leadership crisis. Is it any wonder that the “mortality” rate among Jewish leaders, professional and lay, is so critical? Moses could command the ground to open and swallow his adversaries, and even he became discouraged at the carping, the whining, and the cruel personal invective aimed at him on a daily basis. What protection and support can we offer our leaders?

Every Monday morning, we read a psalm mizmor livney Korach, a song of the children of Korach. Somehow, in the unrecorded history of the Levites, a reconciliation was achieved, the community was reunited, and the children of Korach turned their discord into harmony. May we learn their melody as well.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

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