Leadership failures and leadership vision: Part 1

Serving the greater good

This coming Shabbat is Shemini, one of the most fascinating portions in Vayikra (Leviticus). Why? Because in it Nadav and Avihu, the oldest and second sons of Aaron, are killed for what seems to be a very minor transgression.

We don’t really know why they die. The only real clue we get is the command given to Aaron immediately afterwards: Moses tells Aaron not to enter the Temple intoxicated. So maybe Nadav and Avihu died because they approached God in the wrong state of mind?

The Talmud says that they were punished for innovation and because they ignored the authority of Moses  ̶  that they deliberately ignored what they were told not to do.

It always seemed to me that there was some kind of double standard here, as if God is holding up Nadav and Avihu to a different rule than everyone else is expected to follow. Even if they were guilty of being drunk, or of hubris, were they killed just because they didn’t follow the rules?

Because they decided to innovate rather than follow the community?

We wouldn’t punish ordinary people for these kinds of things. But maybe we do punish leaders for these kinds of things.

What I see here is a clear and precise punishment for leaders because of the positions that they held and their failure to uphold them. We’re accustomed to this double standard as Jews. We’re not chosen because we’re better; we’re chosen because we have a special relationship with God.
It’s a standard that is frequently misunderstood.
It means that we have a higher obligation to care for those in need, to build community, and to save the world. It’s not a license to exploit, or serve ourselves, or get rich at the expense of others. It’s a license to understand how the world works and to partner with others where we can, to make things better. It is the essence of our work in our Jewish Federation.

Sadly, many of the relationships of today — in politics, in business, in our daily dealings — are based on power, on greed, or on personal gain. At their core is the very essence of what struck down Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu had been appointed to serve the People. Their role was to serve a greater good but they ignored that ideal. They betrayed the public trust. They failed the test of leadership.

These double standards are at the heart of what we learn in this week’s Parasha. Just because you strive for values and ideals in your work doesn’t make your stance morally superior. It means that you need to work harder. Leadership doesn’t convey more privileges, more rights. It requires more duties, and more humility. We need to hold our leaders — and ourselves — to a different kind of double standard: upholding the benefit of our people, and working for higher ideals.

All these are, at their core, lessons in leadership. I see them daily in our Federation: volunteers, supporters, people like you, who believe in our community and work for your — our — values.

Shabbat shalom


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