Communal leadership

by | Sep 14, 2012 | Torah Thought

My teacher, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, addressed the issue of Moses’s reticence to accept the mission God wished to entrust to him. It took many days of persuasion at the episode of the burning bush, our sages say, before Moses could be induced to accept his assignment as the leader of his people. Rabbi Feinstein noted that the Talmud relates that Rabbi Zeira undertook 100 fasts in prayer to God to spare the life of his colleague Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Zeira sought to ensure that Rabbi Elazar would be able to continue in his role of communal leadership, and that that burden would not fall to Rabbi Zeira.

My teacher posited that we see clearly demonstrated in these situations a tension between one’s personal spiritual development and the pressing needs of the community. Moses was in effect inviting God to find someone else to take the mantle of leadership and leave him free to pursue his own spiritual quests. Only where no other suitable candidate can be found is one duty-bound to put aside his own needs for those of the community at large. Once Moses was apprised that this was indeed the case, he willingly cast himself into the public arena with complete and heartfelt dedication to his sacred tasks.

Rabbi Feinstein conducted his affairs with modesty and humility. The Talmud relates in the name of Rabbi Pinchas ben Chama that someone whose family member is seriously ill should ask a rabbinic sage to pray for the welfare of the infirm relative. Thus, my teacher was often asked to pray for the infirm. In one of his responsa, written just a few years before his passing, he records the following: I quote:

“And the only reason I receive these requests to pray for the infirm is due to the fact that the petitioners regard me as a rabbinic sage. I am, however, certainly far from being the rabbinic sage that Rabbi Pinchas ben Chama spoke about, and am indeed far from being a Torah leader of the many generations thereafter.

“Even though I do not regard myself as having reached even the threshold of wisdom, since the patient does regard me as such I will follow in the path directed by Rabbi Pinchas ben Chama. In the merit of his belief in the words of our sages, may God accept my prayers and blessings.”

Rabbi Dr. Isadore Yitzchak Twersky, of blessed memory, also addressed these issues. He cited the comment of the Talmud that the sage Shmuel Ha-Kattan would have merited a personal, ongoing relationship with God, but was not granted it because his contemporaries were not deserving of this degree of spirituality. He then noted that a commentator explains that Shmuel Ha-Kattan was not denied this privilege because others were unworthy; rather, he, himself, never rose to the heights of which he had been capable because he sacrificed his own potential in order to be an effective leader. This, concluded Rabbi Twersky, is one aspect of the dialectic of the mitzvah (command) of loving Jewry: sometimes it entails putting one’s own quest for spiritual growth on hold in order to reach out to others.

I would like to suggest that both factors and motivations were critical to the success of Moses in his role as leader of our people. Moses realized that Jewish communal leadership is another form of service to the Almighty. This sense naturally leads one to a feeling of humility. Moshe realized that it was his privilege to fill a position thrust upon him by God. If he was deemed to be the best qualified for this position at that time, this was due to the opportunities God had presented him with throughout his life. Another person provided with similar opportunities could perform the assigned tasks exactly as well as he.

It is both an honor and deeply humbling to serve as head of school at the Strelitz Early Childhood Center and the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater. I am inspired by the devotion to the school on the part of the teachers, parents, administrators, board members, and other friends. The students are a delight and are well-positioned to serve as the next vital chain in the sacred link of Jewish continuity.

—Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, head of school, Strelitz Early Childhood Center and the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater.