Maury Grebenau

Leadership: Similarities Between Claudine Gay & Yehuda

While the story of the brothers selling Yosef is more about a failure of leadership than anything else it contains important lessons about leadership. There are two brothers who make some effort to save Yosef, Reuven and Yehuda. The Ramban explains that their differing suggestions was based on an argument about the level of culpability when a person causes someone else’s death indirectly. Yehudah argues that putting Yosef in a bit with snakes and scorpions is tantamount to killing him outright while Reuven argues that it is not as bad . The brothers listen to Yehudah and decide to sell Yosef instead and Reuven is surprised when he returns to the pit intending to save Yosef and finds he is no longer there.

We find that the brothers as a whole are blamed for selling Yosef in the piyyut of Eleh Ezkara (the 10 martyrs) that we recite on Yom Kippur. The piyyut imagines a scene where our oppressors demand from the rabbis, “what is the verdict if a man is found kidnapping one of his brothers from the children of Israel, treating him as a slave and selling him?” When the rabbis respond that this type of kidnapping and sale is punishable by death the oppressors point out that the brothers did just this to Yosef, selling him “for the mere price of shoes.” This blame is used as the frame for the reason for the torture of these great Tzaddikim as stand-ins for the brothers.

As much as we find all the brothers being blamed, we find that Yehuda in particular is singled out. When Yosef is sold the Torah interrupts the narrative to tell the story of Yehudah and Tamar (Bereshit 38:1) and then returns to Yosef being brought down to Egypt (Bereshit 39:1). Both of the introductory pesukim use the verb YaRaD, go down. The conjugation of each verb is telling. For Yosef it is Hurad, he is brought down, against his will. For Yehuda, it says Vayarad Yehuda me’eit echav – he brought himself down from his brothers. Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains the brothers blamed Yehuda, saying that he convinced them to sell Yosef and if he would have said to save him outright, they would have listened. Yehuda caused his own descent.

Yehuda is seen as the leader and so when things don’t go well the brothers blame him for not leading them even though they were advocating for the exact plan of action that was taken! This is an important lesson for a leader – giving into the pressure of those you lead does not mean they will not turn around and blame you for not talking them out of it. As a leader, Yehuda is expected to go beyond the question of what is punishable and instead encourage what is correct and moral, even when he must go against the desires of those he is leading. This is the mantle of leadership. This difference is more than just reactive vs. proactive. If a leader comes up with a proactive plan for how to be reactive in the future, they may be proactive but still fall short of leadership. Yehuda had an opportunity to lead, and he failed to do so.

This reality of leadership was very evident in the recent blowback after the debacle that was university leadership testimony before a congressional committee about how they are addressing antisemitism on campus. These university presidents spoke about legality and logistics and fell very short of any sense of vision or leadership. Like Yehuda, they responded with discussions about technical blame and consequences when there was really a need for vision and leadership. Like Yehuda, they have been diminished in the eyes of their peers for failing to exhibit the leadership that is necessary for their positions.

Rabbi Ari Berman recently shared a story about when he first became president of YU and attended a conference with other new university presidents. The topic of conversation was focused on when, as a university president, there was a need to call out behavior of an employee. Rabbi Berman was surprised at such a reactive focus and raised the question of what the vision of these universities was – why did they exist? This reactive approach and lack of leadership focus unfortunately remains today at many universities.

Rav Solovietchik would make a distinction between lamah and l’mah – between ‘why’ and ‘to what end’ – when discussing how to react to crisis. Frequently people become mired in ‘lamah’ asking why this happened to them. Instead, we must move into ‘l’mah’ – how can we react positively to the crisis at hand? The role of a leader is to illuminate the path towards ‘l’mah’ not just in reacting to a crisis but in our very existence. To what end are we given our position of leadership? What are we here to accomplish, as individuals and as institutions? A true leader thinks this way and leads towards answering these critical questions.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Maury Grebenau has worked in Jewish day school for 20 years, including leading two Jewish schools for a decade. Rabbi Grebenau has written a number of articles on educational leadership and current issues including teen health and school technology use. His articles have been published in Phi Delta Kappan, Principal Leadership and Hayidion, among others. He currently co-leads a program that supports administrators in Jewish day schools.
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