“Leadership and its Perils”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Because of the nuances of the Hebrew calendar, two parashiot are read this Shabbat, Vayakhel and Pekudei, with which the reading of the book of Exodus concludes. In parashat Vayakhel the Israelites are exhorted to donate a variety of materials for the building of the Tabernacle and respond with overwhelming generosity. The master builders and artisans are appointed to supervise and execute the project, and the people begin to build the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

Because of the overwhelming generosity of the people, Moses announces (perhaps for the first and last time in Jewish history) Exodus 36:6, “Eesh v’eesha al ya’asoo ohd m’lacha lit’roomat ha’kodesh,” Let neither man nor woman contribute any more to the work of the sanctuary! The people then cease to give.

Why were the usually defiant people of Israel suddenly so generous and eager to donate? Perhaps because they felt that their unprecedented generosity might atone for the sin of their eagerness to donate their valuables for the Golden Calf. Alternately, perhaps they felt that they finally had a divinely approved location–the Tabernacle, upon which to focus their religious passions. Whatever the reason for their generosity, their enthusiasm was palpable.

Could it be that this enthusiasm was inspired by the enthusiasm of their leaders who encouraged them to give or who served as role models for the Israelites? Our commentators say that this was hardly the case. The Torah, in Exodus 35:27, records the gifts of the princes of the tribes: “V’ha’n’see’im hay’vee’oo ayt ahv’nay ha’sho’hahm, v’ayt ahv’nay ha’mee’loo’im, la’ay’phod v’la’cho’shen.” And the princes brought onyx stones, and stones for the setting, for the ephod and the breastplate, and spices and oil for the light, for the anointing oil and for the incense.

Rabbi Nathan in Midrash Rabbah, notes an anomaly in the pattern of the princes’ giving. While the Torah states later (Numbers 7:12) that the princes were first to contribute at the dedication of the altar, at the building of the Tabernacle, they donated last. Rather than see the tardiness of their contribution at the building of the Tabernacle as a sign of their reluctance to give, Rabbi Nathan sees the delay in the princes’ contribution as their lack of faith in the Jewish people. According to Rabbi Nathan, the princes proclaimed: “Let the community in general contribute all they wish to give, and what will then be lacking we shall supply!” This obviously implied that the princes did not expect the community to give all that much. When the community gave even more than was needed, the princes asked, “What can we do now?” Therefore, they brought the onyx stones, and stones for the setting, for the ephod, for the breastplate, the spices, etc… It was because of the embarrassment they suffered at the building of the Tabernacle that the princes made certain to be the first to contribute at the dedication of the altar.

This lack of faith in the people did not go unnoticed by the Al-mighty or by Moses. It is for this reason, says Rabbi Nathan, that the Hebrew word for princes, “n’see’im,” is written defectively in the Torah, with the letter Yod missing-–suggesting that there was something lacking in the princes’ leadership.

This Midrash is not only a commentary on Jewish leadership but a reflection on leadership in general. Unfortunately, leaders frequently find themselves in no-win situations. Obviously, it is impossible for leaders to please everyone, inevitably leaving at least some constituents unhappy with their decision. Furthermore, how can a leader be expected to have faith in a people who, immediately after experiencing the extraordinary revelation at Mt. Sinai, worship a Golden Calf? On the other hand, how can leaders not have faith in a people who so passionately declared to G-d (Exodus 24:7): “Na’aseh v’nish’mah,” Let us do and let us learn! We accept your Torah unconditionally.

Clearly, the challenge that the princes faced in parashat Vayakhel conveys a message that leaders must not allow themselves to be distanced or removed from the people. They must spare no effort to be in sync with the masses, be aware of their needs, their concerns as well as their pleasures. Leaders must always try to give their people the benefit of the doubt. Rabbi Nachman ben Jacob states in Sota 40a, that a leader must always show respect for the community. In contemporary times, the Israeli army has taught us that true leaders are those who proclaim, “Acharai,” follow me-–and serve as a paradigm of bravery and commitment.

Finally, leaders need to know that there is a price to pay for leadership. No one knows this better than our leader Moses, who gave his all for the people and still came up short. The Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 7:3) states that Moses and Aaron were well aware of what they were in for when they accepted the mantle of leadership. The Midrash states that G-d informed them in no uncertain terms: “My children are obstinate, ill-tempered and troublesome. In assuming the leadership over them, expect to be cursed and even stoned by them!”

Rabbi Judah ben Yechezkiel, in Berachot 55a, expresses the perils of leadership bluntly and in a manner that should give anyone who is considering assuming a leadership position reason to reexamine the implications of their decision. Says Rabbi Judah: “Leadership shortens life!”

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month of Nissan is read from Ex 12:1-20.