The Courage to Lead (Eruvin 60)

Many years before it became famous for its salmon and beer, Abaye was once asked to build an eruv in a town called Kokanee.  But here’s the quandary one faces anytime you’re asked to construct an eruv: it’s impossible to make everyone happy.  Why?  Because, by definition, some people in the city must be excluded from the enclosed eruv area.

The reason for this strange rule is that the Sages were concerned that youngsters might grow up thinking that it is permissible to carry on Shabbos.  If the only experience they’ve ever had was in their eruvized city of birth, then all they know is that carrying is allowed.  If, however, part of the city must be excluded from the eruv, then everyone will remember that carrying is only permitted within the eruv area.  And when they then go off to visit an eruvless city, they won’t err.

And so, before Abaye sets off to build the eruv, Rav Yosef warns him not to upset the townsfolk.  He arrives in Kokanee and decides that he’ll exclude the houses that face onto Lake Okanagan.  But then it occurs to him that they would probably not be in the eruv anyway if their front doors don’t open into the eruv.  So he decides to recommend that they cut out windows in their back walls.  That way, they could, in theory, feel like they’re part of the eruv, even though practically, they wouldn’t be allowed to take part.  Eventually, he realizes that it’s a bit of a tall order to ask them to construct windows when they’re not even entitled to use the eruv.

He then understands the wisdom of Rav Yosef: Whatever you do, make sure you don’t get more people upset by the eruv than benefitting from it!

הָנְהוּ בְּנֵי קָקוּנָאֵי דְּאָתֵי לְקַמֵּיהּ דְּרַב יוֹסֵף, אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: הַב לַן גַּבְרָא דְּלִיעָרֵב לַן מָאתִין. אֲמַר לֵיהּ לְאַבָּיֵי: זִיל עָרֵב לְהוּ, וַחֲזִי דְּלָא מְצַוְוחַתְּ עֲלַהּ בְּבֵי מִדְרְשָׁא. אֲזַל, חֲזָא לְהָנְהוּ בָּתֵּי דִּפְתִיחִי לְנַהֲרָא. אָמַר: הָנֵי לֶהֱוֵי שִׁיּוּר לְמָתָא. הֲדַר אָמַר: ״אֵין מְעָרְבִין אֶת כּוּלָּהּ״ תְּנַן, [מִכְּלָל] דְּאִי בָּעֵי לְעָירוֹבֵי, מָצֵי מְעָרְבִי. אֶלָּא אֶיעְבֵּיד לְהוּ כַּוֵּוי, דְּאִי בָּעוּ לְעָירוֹבֵי דֶּרֶךְ חַלּוֹנוֹת מָצוּ מְעָרְבִי. הֲדַר אָמַר: לָא בָּעֵי, דְּהָא רַבָּה בַּר אֲבוּהּ מְעָרֵב לַהּ לְכוּלַּהּ מָחוֹזָא עַרְסְיָיתָא עַרְסְיָיתָא מִשּׁוּם פֵּירָא דְּבֵי תוֹרֵי, דְּכׇל חַד וְחַד הָוֵי שִׁיּוּר לְחַבְרֵיהּ. וְאַף עַל גַּב דְּאִי בָּעוּ לְעָרוֹבֵי בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי, לָא מָצוּ מְעָרְבִי. הֲדַר אָמַר: לָא דָּמֵי. הָתָם, אִי בָּעֵי — לְעָרוֹבֵי דֶּרֶךְ גַּגּוֹת, וְהָנֵי לָא מְעָרְבִי, הִילְכָּךְ נַעְבְּדַן כַּוֵּוי. הֲדַר אָמַר: כַּוֵּוי נָמֵי לָא בָּעֵי, דְּהָהוּא בֵּי תִיבְנָא דַּהֲוָה לֵיהּ לְמָר בַּר פּוֹפִידְתָּא מִפּוּמְבְּדִיתָא, וְשַׁוְּיַהּ שִׁיּוּר לְפוּמְבְּדִיתָא. אֲמַר, הַיְינוּ דְּאָמַר לִי מָר: ״חֲזִי דְּלָא מְצַוְוחַתְּ עֲלַהּ בְּבֵי מִדְרְשָׁא״.

The people of Kokanee came before Rav Yosef and said to him: Provide us with someone who will establish an eruv for our city. He said to Abaye: Go, establish an eruv for them, and see to it that there is no outcry against it in the study hall. He went and saw that certain houses opened to the river (and not to the city). He said: Let these houses serve as the section excluded from the eruv for the city.  Abaye subsequently retracted and said: This cannot be done, as we learned: One may not establish an eruv for all of it; by inference, if they wanted to establish an eruv for the entire city, they would have been able to establish such an eruv.  Rather, I will create windows for them, so that if they would want to establish an eruv with the rest of the city by way of the windows, they could establish such an eruv, and then these houses will be fit to serve as the excluded section.  He subsequently retracted and said: Windows are also not necessary. As, that storehouse of straw which belonged to Mar bar Pofidata from Pumbedita was designated as the section excluded from Pumbedita (which proves that it is not necessary for the excluded section to be one that could have been included in an eruv with the rest of the city). Abaye said to himself: This is what the boss meant when he said to me: See to it that there is no outcry against it in the study hall.

The reason that very few people in life rise through the leadership ranks is that very few are prepared to make tough decisions, decisions that come with associated costs.  In the case of the Kokanee eruv – in fact, the same is true of any eruv – Abaye had to exclude certain homes from the area.  In fact, not only did he exclude them, he even considered asking them to make adjustments to their dwellings to enhance the eruv for the rest of the townsfolk!  Can you imagine how resentful they would have felt towards the initiative?

No doubt there were days when Abaye went home and thought, ‘What do I need this for?  Why am I looking to create enemies?’  It would have been much easier to skip the eruv plan, and then nobody would have had any gripes against him. But of course that would have been the nebbish way out.  And nobody would have had an eruv.  The leader is the individual who can get beyond the challenges and take a step forward, despite the inevitable fallout.

It’s not always possible to make everyone happy.  Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy?

And that’s true of every venture of value in life.  You could choose to go through life without rocking the boat, and always playing it safe.  As legendary trader Ed Seykota says, “There are old traders and there are bold traders, but there are very few old, bold traders.”  Most people are afraid of making big moves, because of the risks involved and the inevitable damage that growth engenders.

But the classic dictum, ‘no pain, no gain’ is as true from a leadership perspective as it is in any field of human endeavour.  Forging ahead will mean that some are left behind.  Some will be left out of the eruv – but leaders will persevere nonetheless.

I once heard from Rabbi Mordechai Ginsbury that leadership doesn’t mean being two steps ahead of everyone else.  That’s too far ahead.  Those you’re trying to lead won’t be able to catch up with you.  But at the same time, you can’t keep the same pace as those you are leading.  Doing so means nobody ends up growing.  The ideal leader must be one step ahead of the others, challenging them to grow, but not leaving them in the dust.

One of the most important elements of leadership was Rav Yosef’s parting comment to Abaye: Whatever you do, make sure you avoid grievances developing.  Without a doubt, there are going to be winners and losers in this eruv project.  But try to find a way to bring even those who lost out, on board with the initiative.  That’s true leadership.  If you can convince the people excluded that they’ve taken one for the team, then you’ve demonstrated unparalleled greatness.

Eruv means to ‘join together’.  It also comes from the word ‘sweet’.  The purpose of an eruv is to bring people together and sweeten people’s lives.  A good leader finds ways to sweeten the lives even of those who feel marginalized and excluded.  By definition, some people are going to be excluded.  It’s tempting to quit the project from the get-go, for fear of upsetting some people.  Leadership means marching forward and pursuing those tough decisions even though not everyone will be happy.

Everyone has the potential to be a leader.  But not everyone has the courage to be a leader.  May you have the strength and fortitude to make growth-infused decisions, despite whatever short-term losses they may incur!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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