Servant Leadership (Shabbos 74)

Avraham was in the midst of talking to God, when suddenly, he lifted his eyes and saw three men approaching.  He ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground.  He said to them, “My lords, if only I have found favour in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.  Please can I fetch you some water for you to bathe your feet, and recline under the tree.  Then, let me get you a little bread to sustain yourselves.  Afterwards you can continue on your way, now that you have passed by your servant.” They replied, “So shall you do, as you have spoken.”

Avraham hastened to the tent to Sarah, and he said, “Please hurry over and take some flour to bake a cake.”  Avraham then ran to the cattle, and he took a tender and nice calf, and gave it to Yishmael, who hastened to prepare it.  He then took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed the meal before them, as he stood over them to serve them under the tree, as they ate.

כִּי אֲתָא רַב דִּימִי, אָמַר: שַׁבְּתָא דְּרַב בִּיבִי הֲוַאי, וְאִיקְּלַעוּ רַבִּי אַמֵּי וְרַבִּי אַסִּי, שְׁדָא קַמַּיְיהוּ כַּלְכַּלָּה דְפֵירֵי. וְלָא יָדַעְנָא אִי מִשּׁוּם דְּסָבַר אוֹכֶל מִתּוֹךְ פְּסוֹלֶת אָסוּר, אִי מִשּׁוּם עַיִן יָפָה הוּא דְּמִכַּוֵּין
שבתא דרב ביבי הואי – הגיע יומו להיות עומד ומשמש על התלמידים

When Rav Dimi came, he said: It was the Shabbat of Rav Bibi, and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi were there. He placed before them a basket of fruits (without removing the leaves). And I do not know whether he did so because he holds that it is prohibited to select food from waste, or whether he did so because he desired a beautiful presentation.
Rashi: The Shabbat of Rav Bibi – His day had arrived to be standing and serving the disciples.

Naturally, one would assume that the disciples would vie for the opportunity to serve their teachers.  But that’s not the way things worked in the Talmudic academy.  It was a two-way street.  Just as much as the students desired to serve their teachers, the teachers sought to serve their students.  And it was service with a smile.  Rav Bibi didn’t simply plop the food in front of them.  He made sure that the portion was generous and the presentation was beautiful.  If you’ve ever watched a cooking show or competition, you’ll know that half the marks are given based on the presentation.

Our Sages were not the first to serve their disciples.  They learned from our holy ancestors.  Strangers showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Avraham and Sarah’s tent.  What’s striking about the story is not that they gave them a hot meal in the desert, but their attitude towards their guests.  Avraham addresses them as his lords and calls himself their servant.  He then rushes about and instructs the members of his household to drop everything and serve these strangers as if they were royalty.

Because they were royalty.  Even before he realized that they were angels, the mere belief that they were human beings, created in the image of God, was sufficient reason to honour them.  When you look upon every person as the image of God, you feel compelled to be at their beck and call and run around to satisfy their needs.  Serving your fellow is serving God.

Given such conduct, it comes as no surprise that Avraham and Sarah were so successful in their ability to bring about a religious revolution.  When they travelled across the country, they had an entourage of thousands of followers, all dedicated to their message of monotheism and morality.  From their perspective they may have been followers, but from the perspective of our patriarch and matriarch, they were their lords.  The leader who is dedicated to serving is the leader whose teachings will be imbibed.

Rabbi AY Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  He would sign his name, followed by the descriptor, עבד לעם קדוש על אדמת קודש – Servant of the Holy People upon the Holy Land.  In our tradition, that’s the greatest appellation, to be able to call oneself a servant of the people.  It is indeed an honour to serve the princes and princesses of the Almighty.

Servant leadership, as Robert Greenleaf, terms it, is the endeavour to bring out the best in the other person.  If you want to impact another person’s life, first and foremost, they need to know that you care about them.  President Theodore Roosevelt is famous for saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

We’re all teachers, in some way, shape, or form.  Teaching is about imparting a message to another person and influencing their behaviour.  Influential messaging runs the spectrum, beginning with spiritual life-purpose messages to academic educational teachings to day-to-day behavioural messages.  The teenager who feels that all their parent ever does is lecture them will remain intransigent in their behaviour.  But when he or she feels that the parent is there for them and willing to go to the ends of the earth for them, the message they’re seeking to impart will pierce their hearts.

Our patriarchs and matriarchs were all dedicated to serving.  In no fewer than three places in the Torah, marriage partners were found by the well, as they were shepherding their flocks.  They were chosen for their clear commitment and dedication to serving.  The key to happiness and fulfilment in life and making a difference in the life of others is to be willing to serve and provide care.  May your constant efforts to serve reveal your true leadership quality!

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