Friday, July 01, 2022

The Leadership Legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe


What was Moshe’s leadership philosophy? He responds in very different ways to two critical episodes in the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. When Korach and his supporters rebel against Moshe’s leadership, Moshe responds with fury; he maneuvers Korach’s camp into accepting a challenge that will ultimately cost them their lives. Moshe stands out as a strong minded leader who deftly eliminates the opposition.
Yet during the incident of Eldad and Medad, Moshe reacts very differently. At God’s command, Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and assist him. Two men who were not invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, begin to prophesize, even though they had not been included among the 70 appointed assistants. Eldad and Medad’s actions are perceived as an act of rebellion; Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi highlights their defiance by quoting a Midrash which says that Eldad and Medad had prophesied “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the Land.” Like Korach, Eldad and Medad are challenging Moshe’s leadership.
Yet what is Moshe's response to Eldad and Medad? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”
It is apparent that the Torah intends us to read these two accounts side by side; their narratives and language mirror each other. In both, there is a gathering of elders. In both, there are calls for Moshe’s resignation; in the first instance, Moshe offers his resignation, in the Korach narrative, Korach calls on Moshe to resign. In both, there are declarations about the elevated status of the nation. Moshe exclaims that he wishes that the entire nation could be prophets; Korach declares that the entire nation is holy.

So, what accounts for why Moshe reacts so differently in the two narratives? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that there are two aspects of Moshe's role. He writes that: “There are two forms or dimensions of leadership. One is power, the other, influence. Often, we confuse the two…. In fact, however, the two are quite different, even opposites…. So deep is the difference that the Torah allocates them to two distinct leadership roles: king and prophet. Kings had power. They could levy taxes, conscript people to serve in the army, and decide when and against whom to wage war. Prophets, by contrast, had no power at all. They commanded no armies. They levied no taxes. They spoke God’s word but had no means of enforcing it. All they had was influence – but what influence!”
Sacks explains that in the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophetic inspiration, a form of non-coercive influence. Inspiration should be shared widely; therefore, Moshe embraces Eldad and Medad. On the other hand, Korach wants power, and wants to replace Moshe. That Moshe cannot accede to, because it is impossible for two kings to wear the same crown.
(The difficulty with Rabbi Sacks’ position is that the story of Eldad and Medad and the 70 elders takes place during a political crisis. The 70 elders he appoints are meant to be both political leaders and prophets; and the clear demarcation between political and prophetic leadership doesn’t begin until the time of King David.)
I would suggest a slightly different approach. Moshe is a transformative leader who sees the goal of leadership as serving others. This idea is reflected in a verb that is shared in both narratives, sa, or to “lift up.” However, it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad, the verb sa is used to connote that leading the people is a burden. The analogy Moshe uses is that leadership is like carrying a child on your lap; and this burden is difficult to carry. Moshe remarks, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” In the narrative of Korach, this verb is used by Korach in a very different way. He complains against Moshe saying, “Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach sees the leader as being lifted by his followers; it is the leader who benefits most from the relationship of leadership.
I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Eldad and Medad may be challenging Moshe, but they are not searching for personal glory; they simply want to help spread the word of God. This type of transformative leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around; uninterested in power for its own sake, Eldad and Medad pose no threat to Moshe. Korach, however, wants to be raised up by others. His thirst for leadership is egocentric. Leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. And for that reason, Moshe responds harshly to Korach, whose true goal is creating an autocracy of one.
Transformative leaders represent a very different vision of leadership. They not only come to serve the community, but they also recognize that the greatest service one can offer is to help create other transformative leaders. They use their influence to help others become the best version of themselves.
This week marks the 28th yartzeit, anniversary of the death, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the Rebbe’s leadership is precisely this: he was determined to turn others into leaders.
Today, there are thousands of Chabad shluchim in every corner of the globe; they each lead synagogues, schools, communities, and organizations. The Rebbe has inspired many leaders within Lubavitch; but his influence goes well beyond Chabad. 
Joseph Telushkin, in his book Rebbe relates two examples of the impact the Rebbe’s transformative leadership had on rabbis outside of the Lubavitch community.
One anecdote he relates is about Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who later would become the executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union. At the time, Weinreb was 30, and working in Baltimore as a clinical psychologist and educator. He was at a crossroads in his life, unsure of which career path to take, and plagued with religious challenges. So Weinreb decided to call the Rebbe, whose farbrengens he had attended when he lived in Crown Heights. Telushkin relates that:
In February 1971, Weinreb called the Rebbe’s office to see if he could arrange an appointment. The call was answered by a secretary, whom Weinreb later deduced was Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov. Hodakov started asking him questions to ascertain the purpose of the call, when Weinreb heard a voice in the background – which he recognized from those earlier farbrengens – asking in Yiddish, “Who’s calling?”
At that point, Weinreb was anxious to maintain his anonymity – particularly if he did not end up meeting with the Rebbe. He replied,” A Jew from Maryland.” …..
But then, even before Weinreb could pin down a date for a meeting, he heard the Rebbe call out in the background, “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to, Der Yid hayst Weinreb (His name is Weinreb).”
Hodakov said to him, “Did you hear what the Rebbe said?”
Weinreb had heard and was in shock.… he assumed that he had probably misheard the Rebbe. So, he told Hodakov no, he had not heard what the Rebbe said.
Rabbi Hodakov repeated the Rebbe’s words: “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to. His name is Weinreb.”
Weinreb said, “But my name is Weinreb.”
Now it was Rabbi Hodakov’s turn to be shocked. But not the Rebbe. When Hodakov repeated aloud what Weinreb had said, the Rebbe simply responded, “Oih azoi. If that is the case, then he should know that sometimes a person needs to speak to himself.”
This advice seems to be the opposite of what a rebbe should offer. After all, the follower is coming to him, the leader for support. But that’s precisely the point. The Rebbe’s goal was to create leaders, not followers. And he was challenging Rabbi Weinreb, who was already an accomplished rabbi and psychologist, to recognize his own abilities and trust his own instincts and insights.
The Rebbe also challenged people to take responsibility for the situation around them; to stop looking inward, and instead recognize that the potential for change was in their hands.
The book has a second anecdote regarding a second-year student at Cambridge, Jonathan Sacks, who came to visit the Rebbe. This meeting would change Sacks’ life trajectory and start him on his career as a rabbi and Jewish leader. Telushkin writes:
At the meeting, what first struck Sacks was the Rebbe’s understated, nonaggressive manner. For a good while, the Rebbe listened and responded patiently to Sack’s philosophical queries and concerns, always acting “as if the most important person in the room was me.” But then, having taken his measure of the young man, the Rebbe suddenly turned the conversation around. The interviewee became the interviewer. “Things are going wrong,” the Rebbe had said to him. “Are you willing to be one of those who helps to put them right?”
The young man was taken aback. He had gone into the meeting to ask questions, not answer them. Furthermore, at that early, somewhat uncertain stage of his life, his intention was to become an economist, a lawyer, or an academic. He certainly did not see himself as a leader, though that was the role the Rebbe was now telling him to assume; at one point, the Rebbe even challenged him as to what he was doing to strengthen Jewish life at Cambridge.
The Rebbe’s insistent manner made a profound impact on Sacks: “I had been told that the Rebbe was a man with thousands of followers. After I met him, I understood that the opposite was the case. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. More than the Rebbe was a leader, he created leadership in others.”
This is the very foundation of transformative leadership: true leaders teach others how to be leaders. And the Rebbe did that, thousands of times over. May his memory continue to inspire us to be those people that when things are going wrong, helps to put them right.

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