Varying modes of leadership are important to identify, especially in moments of emerging need.
For a shul community, these transitions can include urgent financial decisions, membership growth/shrinkage, strategic professional transitions, etc. For a nation, they can include popular revolution, dramatic economic shift, international relations, and more. But in any and every setting in which a specific leadership style is healthy and effective, it is perhaps only so in that specific moment and circumstance. The very same approach might be unhealthy in another time, another place and, in fact, many factors determine whether or not a certain leadership methodology is appropriate.
We read in Parashat Tetzaveh of the clothing for the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. Aaron was the very first in this line, his clothing both fabulous and complicated, burdensome and ornate. The instructions for the priestly clothing are intricate, including a gold headband which read “Holy to God” and a robe with pomegranate-shaped bells which sounded out with any movement. Aaron was a human being like any other, but could not move around inconspicuously. He and his descendants were servants of God, chosen from birth for a role that designated them different. We might imagine that they were hyper-aware of how they were seen by others. They were from the people, but not “of the people.” They were not the same as their community – they stood apart.
Parashat Tetzaveh is unique in that it the only Torah Portion following Moses’ birth in which his name does not appear. Some suggest this is due to his initial reticence at the burning bush to be God’s emissary to Pharaoh, which thereby charged Aaron with a new role of Priest. The focus of the Parashah on Aaron’s clothing could, according to this reasoning, offend Moses, and so Moses’ name is not mentioned, out of a sensitivity to his feelings. Their distinct roles, different models of authority and service, were, perhaps, a source of tension to which the Torah’s text is sensitive.
But there is another interpretation, one which suggests that Moses’ apparent absence is due to the challenge he poses to God in a later moment. Incensed at the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, God commands Moses to “step aside” to allow God to destroy the Israelites and begin again with Moses. Moses steps into the breach and refuses to allow God to act, saying “You may not do this, and if You do, erase me from Your book!” God relents, but the threat has an effect and Moses’ name is removed from the preceding Parasha. Moses’ interconnectedness with his people is powerfully demonstrated in his willingness to take a difficult stand in a tense situation, acting in the best interests of the people. He is one of them, not separate, as Aaron and the priests seem to be.
Aaron is a necessary part of a community. Sometimes a religious leader must stand separate, as a symbolic exemplar, wearing her sacred purpose on her sleeve (or forehead). Sometimes a religious leader must be indistinguishable from his community, willing to be anonymous in the service of a shared cause.
It is a true ongoing test of a leader to stand always for and sometimes within their community, judging each moment and determining an appropriate response, acting with devotion and temerity, even and especially when it is uncomfortable.