Leadership means taking the fall (Shabbos 46)

Not everyone is cut out for leadership.  If God created a world full of leaders, there would be too many captains on the ship to sail smoothly.  If you believe that you were created to lead, then you must be prepared to demonstrate your leadership qualities.  First and foremost, that means taking responsibility for the mistakes of others.

Rava was once walking down the street in Mechoza when he stepped in some dirt.  His attendant picked up a shard of broken pottery and cleaned Rava’s shoe.  When the other rabbis saw this happen, they began to chastise the attendant. ‘How could he pick up a shard of pottery in the public domain on Shabbos?  Such rubbish is deemed to have no value, and therefore muktzeh (forbidden to be handled) on Shabbos?

Immediately, Rava rose to his attendant’s defence.  ‘He was absolutely justified in his decision to pick up the piece.  At home, undoubtedly you all agree that shards of clay are often used to cover pots.  If we can pick up broken pieces of pottery in a private domain, then we can likewise handle them in a public domain!  Of course, he would not have dared carry the shard any distance in the public domain.  But there was no issue with him picking it up and using it for a bona fide purpose.’

But still, the Sages were not satisfied. . .

רַב אַוְיָא אִיקְּלַע לְבֵי רָבָא. הֲוָה מְאִיסָן (בֵּי) כַּרְעֵיהּ בְּטִינָא. אִתֵּיב אַפּוּרְיָא קַמֵּיהּ דְּרָבָא. אִיקְּפַד רָבָא, בְּעָא לְצַעוֹרֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאי טַעְמָא רַבָּה וְרַב יוֹסֵף דְּאָמְרִי תַּרְוַויְיהוּ שְׁרָגָא דְנַפְטָא נָמֵי שְׁרֵי לְטַלְטוֹלַהּ? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הוֹאִיל וְחַזְיָא לְכַסּוֹיֵי בַּהּ מָנָא. אֶלָּא מֵעַתָּה, כׇּל צְרוֹרוֹת שֶׁבֶּחָצֵר מִטַּלְטְלִין, הוֹאִיל וְחַזְיִין לְכַסּוֹיֵי בְּהוּ מָנָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הָא אִיכָּא תּוֹרַת כְּלִי עָלֶיהָ. הָנֵי לֵיכָּא תּוֹרַת כְּלִי עֲלֵיהֶן.
אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק: בְּרִיךְ רַחֲמָנָא דְּלָא כַּסְּפֵיהּ רָבָא לְרַב אַוְיָא

Rav Avya once visited Rava’s house. His feet were dirty with mud and he put them up on the couch before Rava.  Rava was upset and decided to give him a hard time. Rava said to him: What is the reason that Rabba and Rav Yosef both said that with regard to a naphtha lamp, too, that it is permitted to move it on Shabbat? Rav Avya said to him: Since it is suitable to cover a vessel with it. Rava said to him: But if that is so, all pebbles in the yard may also be carried, since it is suitable to cover a vessel with them. Rav Avya said to him: Here’s the difference: The lamp is considered a vessel, whereas the pebbles do not have the status of a vessel. Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak said: Thank God, Rava was unable to humiliate Rav Avya.

While the story of Rava walking with his attendant only appears much later in the tractate, Rabbi IJ Yerushalmski suggests that it happens chronologically earlier than the tale in our Gemara.  Without the background narrative, a story of one rabbi coming over to the other’s home and putting his muddy boots on the couch sounds strange.  Now, however, the exchange between the two rabbis makes more sense.

Rav Avya walks in with dirty shoes and wants to demonstrate to Rava that he must concede to the legal opinion of the majority of the rabbis.  When an individual insists on blazing his own trail when everyone disagrees with his approach, he must be brought into line.  Rav Avya takes it upon himself to make the point to his colleague in an unforgettable manner.  ‘Do you think you can just pick up shards in the street and clean your boots?  It’s prohibited.  That’s why I’m here at your home with dirty shoes.  I never want you to forget that.  Do you understand, now?’

We can understand why Rava might not have appreciated his friend’s gesture and why he was a little agitated with his guest’s conduct.  He proceeds to prove that the halacha aligns with his view in other situations of handling muktzeh items that may be utilized for alternative purposes.  Nevertheless, Rav Avya holds his own and maintains the veracity of the consensus position.

One of the powerful lessons of the story of Rava in Mechoza is the fact that, in the face of the criticism of the other rabbis, he was prepared to back the behaviour of his attendant.  Presumably, the so-called attendant was no mere servant, he would have been a star disciple who was accompanying his teacher as he made his way to the study hall.  The student knew Rava’s position and followed it.  When the other rabbis expressed their displeasure, Rava might have chosen to agree with his colleagues, leaving the young man high and dry.  But the Gemara emphasizes that he was willing to take responsibility for the actions of his subordinate.

That’s a lesson in leadership.  If you’re a team-leader, and a member of the team makes a mistake, you don’t forsake them in the face of criticism.  You step up and take responsibility for the shortcomings of the team effort as a whole. If something goes wrong, then the buck stops with the leader.  The ‘leader’ that chooses to assign blame to others won’t remain in their leadership role for long.

A few years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to chair the council that built the National Holocaust Monument of Canada.  It was years in the making.  The number of details that go into such an historic edifice is extraordinary.  The big day finally arrived and the monument opened to the lights and cameras of national and international media.  It was one of the proudest days of my life.

But then something went awry. It came to light that the plaque at the entrance to the monument mourned the genocide of the six million martyrs of the Holocaust.  You read that right: Sadly, after years of fine-tuning and millions of dollars of investment, we missed a word.  Not a small word.  An important word.  The most important word.  The media had a field day with our terrible, inexcusable omission of the word ‘Jewish’.

As you can well imagine, a project of such magnitude involves hundreds of team-members, each tasked with some detail of the initiative.  My primary responsibility as chair of the development council was to ensure that the project as a whole moved along in a timely and efficient manner, not to inspect and approve every detail of the monument.  But when the matter blew up, none of that mattered.  As the leader, I chose to face the media and take responsibility for the oversight.

I could have identified the individual who allowed such a ‘monumental’ mistake to occur and pointed the finger at them.  I could have.  But I didn’t.  Because while I might have maintained my clean record as an individual, I would have failed as a leader.

Many people claim to seek leadership roles.  But not everyone is prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to be a true leader.  Leadership requires accepting blame and responsibility even when it wasn’t your fault that things went wrong.  The more responsibility you take, the more the Almighty will entrust you with responsibility.  If, however, you choose to pass the blame on to your ‘underlings’, you will not be trusted very long to maintain the strength and fortitude of the team.

Not everyone is cut out for leadership.  If God created a world full of leaders, there would be too many captains on the ship to sail smoothly.  If you believe that you were created to lead, then you must be prepared to demonstrate your leadership qualities.  First and foremost, that means taking responsibility for the mistakes of others.

Moshe Rabbeinu’s pivotal moment came, following the Israelites’ sin of the Golden Calf.  Hashem offered to destroy the nation and start afresh with Moshe.  ‘Please forgive the sin of this people,’ Moshe responded, ‘and if not, erase me from the Book that You have written.’  That’s leadership.  May you develop the courage and determination to earn the privilege of leadership!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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