I’d like to talk a little bit about leadership in a Jewish context. We tend to look at leaders through a slightly different lens than much of society. While I recognize this is a generalization, and not every secular leader is like this, strength, toughness and alpha-male type of dominance are not traits that Jewish tradition espouses. Unsurprisingly, the Jewish view of leadership is layered and complex.
Because we recognized the danger of abuse of power, Jewish leadership was generally shared. It was divided, placing power not in the hands of one person, but a combination of kings, judges and rabbis, or religious, scholarly and political leaders. A single, charismatic leader ruling and solving problems alone is not the Jewish way.
Another hallmark of Jewish leadership is the idea that the leaders serve the needs of their followers by empowering them, motivating them and helping to develop leadership in them as well. True leaders look beyond themselves, to the future.
In our tradition, Moses is the prime example of an effective leader. Humble, reluctant to lead, very human, but able to lead a nation of slaves to the promised land. In Beha’alotecha, the parsha we read following Shavuot, leadership is shifting from a “God to Moses to the people” model to a more inclusive model. It’s the second year of the Exodus and the people are disgruntled and whiney. They’re complaining to Moses who finally turns to God and basically says, this is too heavy a burden for me alone. So, God tells Moses to gather 70 elders of Israel and bring them into the tent of meeting. He’ll draw upon the spirit of Moses and put it on them as well. Moses knew that he could not lead alone. Why 70 elders? The Rambam notes that 70 is significant in Judaism, among other reasons, because it includes all opinions that are possible in each case. So, God is saying that all opinions and diverse viewpoints must be heard and considered. That respect for diversity of opinion is a hallmark of Judaism, and Jewish leadership, from Hillel and Shamai to the present.
One other lesson from Beha’alotecha I think is significant. When two young men not of the original 70 began to prophesize and Joshua wanted to stop them, Moses responded, “would that all God’s people were prophets…” He had the ability to recognize, acknowledge and appreciate leadership in others. He saw it not as a threat, but an opportunity.
And now I come to Hadassah. As with the 70 elders representing all possible opinions, we are an organization of wide diversity, in age, interests, religious affiliation and social position. We are the women of Hadassah, the people Hadassah, and every person in Hadassah has a voice that can and should be heard. We have a region executive committee, region board and chapters with leaders and boards who all share the burden of leadership. I believe that our leadership groups are as diverse as Hadassah is and that respect and healthy debate are our modus operandi. I assure you that that being part of Hadassah is not a spectator sport! However good our leadership, we need our members’ passion, commitment, engagement and voice.
Whatever your Jewish cause or organization, step up and be an active participant in the good work that is being done every day, all around the world.