These thoughts are inspired by a courageous article by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David of Ayeka as well as by the weekly Parsha, Sh’lach we read several weeks ago. I strongly recommend reading this excellent article before continuing with my offering.
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There is so much to say……
One important message we learn from the incident of the spies is the price we pay for meek and fearful leadership. The men charged to scout the land are explicitly labeled רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל, Roshei B’nei Yisrael, heads of the Jewish people. Achieving their positions of leadership during the period Israel was enslaved in Egypt, they radically underestimate the capabilities of the Jewish people. They assume our inadequacy and, by focusing on their perception of our inability to operate at any more than a minimal level, cause us to lose our self-confidence, our faith in God, our faith in ourselves. (Although I really don’t want to tackle politics, does this sound familiar to our current situation in Israel?) Only two of these men, Yehoshua and Calev, exhibit the bravery and boldness to lead and to inspire us to the greatness which is within our grasp.
With too few exceptions, much of today’s traditional rabbinic leadership runs on fear, insecurity and cowardice or else out of political megalomania and greed and we both need and deserve much more. Yes, there are some real leaders out there, rabbis who both challenge and inspire. But as the recent Chief Rabbi election demonstrates, all too painfully, there is a strong self-propagation/preservation momentum embedded in those with power, regardless of how their policies effect those they are supposed to serve, and all too often the courageous rabbis are banished to various fringes.
Democracy, which I do believe is the best system of governance yet evolved, presents special challenges. A disturbing trend, recently popularized in American politics, is “leading from behind” which really means extensive polling and then trying to deliver whatever is popular, i.e. whatever will keep current leaders in power. But another, perhaps much more accurate description, contains the words “pandering”, “cynicism” and “cowardice”. Too many rabbis today view their job largely as marketing, attempting to attract Shabbat attendance (not to mention enthusiastic financial support) by tailoring “Judaism” to what they think will be popular. Often (mostly in non-traditional settings) that takes the form of editing out “offensive” passages in our liturgy and Torah, based on what is deemed “correct” or “palatable”–and usually this is done by people who seem unaware of any but the most superficial, literal facet of their/our tradition (in other words, by people who whatever their other qualifications might be, lack a central qualification of the rabbinate, deep knowledge of Torah!). On the other end of the spectrum, this pandering consists of adding baseless chumrot, stringencies, flattering their followers with the illusion of piety, at the same time demonstrating their own ignorance of basic Torah principles such as דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם, Darcheha Darchei Noam, Her paths are routes of/to pleasantness (liturgy for returning the Sefer Torah to the Ark), and וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, U’bacharta B’Chayim, and choose life (Devorim 30:19).
We’re taught from a number of sources that each generation produces “Thirty-six hidden Tzaddikim (saintly individuals). Unfortunately, not every generation merits even one of these Tzaddikim becoming visible and public. I fear that our generation has become one of those bereft of true leadership. On the other hand, we’re also taught in the well-known tractate, Avot (2:5), ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ, Ub’makom Sh’Eyn Anashim, Hishtadel L’h’yot Ish, And in a place where there are no men (grown-ups?), strive to become a man. We need to search out our potential leaders, remembering that they’re likely far from public view, and then encourage/nurture them to “come out”, to teach us how to fulfill the deep truths of the Torah in our day (and not how it was done in totally different circumstances!). Of course, we can see our present lack of real leadership as God’s mandate to each of us to develop the “leader” within each of us, but the sad fact is that given the analogous hiddenness of Torah wisdom in our generation, we’re severely limited to just how much any of us can develop.
As Rabbi Ben David wrote, “the time has come for more”. We need more.