Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil


I have a declaration. By the power vested in me through keyboard ownership and broadband internet access, I hereby declare Followship to be the new Leadership. (I admit I was sad to see in my Google search that I did not invent the word Followship. Ah well.)

D’var Torah writers have found advice for Jewish leaders countless times throughout every parsha. If that was what I wanted to write about there are a dozen jumping off points in this week’s parsha alone. Rabbi Sacks has literally written the book on Jewish Leadership advice from the Torah and his insight on the difference between power and influence is more useful and important that anything I am likely to add to the topic. In fact, I think there has been so much time and effort spent on teaching teens and young adults about being the next generation of leaders we’ve only left out one thing. Leaders need followers, and we Jews are pretty bad followers.

Following happens in nearly every situation in which you are not the boss, and maybe a few where you are. We are followers in work even if we’re managers, in shul even if we’re on the board, and at home even if we’re the adults. (I wasn’t sure if I was a leader or a follower at home so I asked my wife, who smiled politely, rolled her eyes, and told me that for the purposes of this blog entry I could be the leader. I thanked her and came back to write.)

Being a good follower is a bit of a tightrope walk, I admit. On the one hand, being a follower means that I am ceding some of my autonomy. I accept the authority of another to make decisions, to set an agenda, to create a vision. On the other hand, I never cede my responsibility for my actions, so as I put my will aside to accept the will of the leader, it’s with one eye open. By accepting a leader I might become part of a group and in that group I might lose an aspect of my individuality, but Judaism never allows for me to shirk responsibility for the outcomes of any situation I help create. (To paraphrase the Talmudic dictum, there is no agency when sins are involved.) And so paradoxically, even though I give up an aspect of myself to follow a leader, I become something new in that exchange.

A way of illustrating this paradox in action might come from the upcoming Rosh Hashanah prayer service. A major theme of the day is that we declare the Creator as King. Any astute teenager (and I’ve known quite a few) will be ready to ask, “Wait, if Hashem is King then why do we need to say something and if Hashem needs us to say something to make it happen, then is He really king?” The question is a good one, honestly. What are we doing? There are different ways to approach this, but one insight is to remember that a whole path of our tradition teaches that prayer is not for Hashem, it’s for us. That is, The Creator does not need to hear our declaration of fealty. The Omnipotent has no ego that requires our sycophant-y recital of verses that have the word king in them as if in some cosmic, biblical word find. Rather this is our chance to declare ourselves followers. In our declaration of the Creator as King we acknowledge (create?) our status as either subjects or members of the Royal Court.

The tension between membership in a group and being true to yourself, between followship and individualism does have a source in this week’s Torah reading. I’m not convinced that in a world where everyone with a keyboard and internet access can just go around making declarations, and where everyone feels so entitled to an opinion they can start a blog, (myself uncomfortably included) that this is going to be a popular message. The Torah describes what to do in the event in of a Rebellious Elder. Essentially this is a situation where the Sanhedrin votes on a critical point of law and after issuing its ruling one of the members of that highest court refuses to accept the outcome. His refusal might not matter much to us, Judaism is much more interested in what people do rather than what they think. But this Elder rules on the matter in an actual case, permitting something the Sanhedrin has forbidden. The Torah is outraged by this. The Unity of G-d Almighty is reflected in the Unity of the Jewish People and the Torah and the halacha can’t stomach this discordance.

Let’s look at this through the eyes of this Elder for a moment. He’s absolutely convinced, with every fiber of his being, that they are in error. The Sanhedrin CAN make mistakes. The Torah actually tells us what to do if the Sanhedrin ruled incorrectly on a matter of involving some aspect of polytheism, so they are human and they are fallible. And this Elder is positive this is a mistake. Does he have a responsibility to speak his truth? Does he have a right of civil disobedience? He is convinced that history will prove him right in the end. As one of the 70 most important leaders of the Jewish people, doesn’t he have a responsibility to speak up here? It seems that the Torah is teaching that even leaders need to be followers. They need to see they’re limits as imposed on them by law (or by The Law.) And to be perfectly clear, the Torah is saying, he does not have the right to rule according to his conscience. In this instance he will be judged by whether he upheld the court’s ruling, not by whether he was the greater scholar. He might be entitled to an opinion, he is just not allowed to act on it. (Whether he could start a blog in order to make his opinion heard is oddly a law missing from the Talmud.)

This Shabbos my Rav, Rabbi Binyamin Marwick, added another insight. The Torah reading this week ends with the mitzvah of Eglah Arufa – a ceremony in which the elders of a town would seek expiation of sin, if a victim of murder was found closer to the boundaries of their town. In the verses that deal with this mitzvah there is a curious tradition for the spelling of a word. Where you would expect the Torah to say spilled in a plural form (as in the sentence, “our hands did not spill this blood) instead the Torah has the spelling, (but not the pronunciation) of the word in a singular form. The Das Zekeinim says this unexpected letter hey (with its numerical value of 5) is hinting at the 5 aspects of hospitality. Rabbi Marwick extended this thought to explain as follows, the Das Zekeinim is not just saying that the elders are declaring that we extended to this victim all aspects of hospitality. The Torah is saying that the job of extending hospitality is NOT ONLY the work of the elders! Every homeowner has responsibility. Even though we have leaders we have personal responsibility. We can’t excuse ourselves with a shrug and think that public safety and care for the vagrant is a Leadership Issue. It’s an Everyone Issue.

What does it take to be a good follower? I think it’s a conversation worth having. We’re raising a generation of leaders and no one is yet whispering the whole truth – we need good, dedicated, hardworking followers. These are people that work selflessly with a group, that are satisfied with a job well done and don’t need public accolades, and that see their success in the success of the group.

The best followers make their leader better by pushing back a bit. They ask probing questions. They check new initiatives against the organization’s mission statement. There might be a role for “blind faith” in Judaism (a topic worthy of discussion itself) but it is not blind faith in human leadership. That has never been our way as a people. Great followers might be willing to take direction, but they never shirk responsibility. Come to think of it, maybe we Jews do make good followers.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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