A leader must put concern for others before self-pride

Netzavim Vayeilech
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

This week’s dual Torah reading offers several significant ideas. I chose one from each parashah to consider.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord, your G-d, your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all of the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, your stranger that is in your camp, from the cutter of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)

Netzavim begins this way to make clear that before G-d all stand as equals, from the greatest leader to the simplest laborer. Each individual, no matter his station in life, has in G-d’s eyes the same potential for spiritual greatness. The poor laborer who is pious in his behavior and raises his children accordingly rises to the same level as the wealthy contributor to Jewish causes. No one may consider himself unworthy of participation in the Covenant between G-d and the Jewish people.

In this regard, a famous story is told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. As the story goes, the 19th-century rabbi went up to the bimah on Rosh Hashanah to blow the shofar but stopped suddenly, as if he were waiting for something. The congregation was bewildered and grew restless. Finally the rabbi explained:

“In the back of the shul,” he began, “sits a Jew who was kidnapped in his youth, raised in a gentile home and placed in the king’s army. At the age of 40 he was finally released and allowed to return to his people. He has not seen the inside of a shul since his childhood.

“Naturally, he cannot remember the prayers that he heard so long ago. Yet, upon returning to the House of G-d, he was overcome with emotion. He desperately wanted to participate in the expressions of devotion to the Holy One, Blessed be He. I heard him utter the only remnant of Hebrew that he recalled from his youth, the letters of the aleph bet. He said them, however, with such feeling that those letters flew straight up to heaven.

“I therefore paused before blowing the shofar to allow his letters to reach the Almighty who Himself will arrange them into the words of our prayers. Now we can begin the blowing of the shofar.”

To Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the man’s ignorance mattered not at all. All that mattered was his extreme devotion. In fact, it was his utterances that opened the gates of heaven to allow the prayers of the entire congregation to enter.

In the parashah of Vayeilech, we are shown an important aspect of true leadership. On the last day of Moses’ life (at 120 years of age), knowing that he would never enter the beloved Promised Land, he was devoid of self-pity. He was filled only with concern for his people. This portion begins, “And Moses went out and spoke to all of Israel.” (Deut. 31:1) He didn’t wait for the people to come to him, but humbly he actively went out and gathered the people to him. A leader must give of himself and take the initiative in speaking to his followers. This was Moses, a true leader to the very end.

A more recent historical Jewish leader with the same quality was the Vilna Gaon (the 18th century genius of Vilna). So great was his brilliance and leadership that he dwarfed all others of his era. Yet he always took great pains to display his concern for the common man.

He was once so deeply engrossed in a difficult talmudic passage that he failed to notice or return the greeting of one of his young students, who was crestfallen at the apparent snub. When the Vilna Gaon later learned of this incident, he ran out to search for the boy. When he found him, he begged forgiveness for unintentionally causing the boy anguish. The student was so moved by the humility and concern of this great Torah master that he became one of the Gaon’s most devoted followers, a testament to the leadership qualities of this great man who, like Moses, put concern for others before self-pride. Sadly this is a trait often missing from many of our leaders today.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.