A leader for the people

The passing of Her majesty, The Queen, will become one of those moments that will change the course of history. There are only a handful of moments that I can recall in my lifetime that may compare to the significance and magnitude of such an event. This past Shabbat, the Rabbi, in his sermon, made reference to the Queen and her distinguished career as a global role model. What made her reign so unique was that, as a leader, she was really a servant who was devoted to serving her people, conducting herself with humility and modesty. As I listened to his very respectful and considerate words, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the way in which the Queen ruled and the Jewish approach to leadership as expounded by the Sages and our precious texts.

The greatest compliment Moses receives is the fact that he is referred to as an eved HaShem, a servant of G-d. In fact, he is called this 18 times throughout the Tanach. The only other person to be honoured with this title is Joshua, twice. In Judaism, a leader is a servant and to lead is to serve. It seems this is the same style of leadership adopted by Her Majesty. Anything else is not leadership as Judaism understands it.

The Hebrew word for leadership, manhigut, is derived from the root found in the Hebrew word for behaviour, hitnahagut. Effective leadership is not about position or power, it is about behaviour and action. Our sources suggest that one can lead effectively even without holding a title or being in a position of leadership, a message we reinforce every year with our senior students prior to announcing the Student Leadership Council (SLC). In Pirkei Avot (4:20) we are told to, “Be rather a tail to lions than a head to foxes”, teaching us that it is our behaviour that counts, not what it states on our office doors or Linkedin accounts. Furthermore, the Talmud (Horayot 10a), states that, “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” suggesting that in order to be effective, leaders need to develop capacity in others, motivating them and empowering them to become leaders themselves.  

Even when the Torah tells the story of Korach, who challenges the leadership of Moses, we can learn a valuable lesson about leadership. Korach was angry that Moses had been appointed as leader of the Jewish People and his brother Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Korach confronts Moses and says, “…why then have you [Moses] set yourself above G-d’s assembly?” (Bemidbar 16:3). Korach also wanted to lead and was jealous of both Moses and Aaron. However, Korach’s mistake, as reflected in his statement, was to assume that leadership was about hierarchy, and at the top of the pyramid stood the leader, all powerful and mighty. Korach made the same mistake that many make today – thinking that leadership is about telling (ordering) those below you to do your work for you. Korach wanted to be a leader for himself. Moses was elected because he was a leader for his people. And just in case a King’s ego should begin to expand, the Torah commands him to carry a Torah scroll at all times, in order to fear G-d and carry out His laws, rather than his own laws.

Great Jewish leaders were not eager for the job. They did not care about the pay packets, mostly because they did not come with one. Rather, they were very often reluctant to assume such roles. The Talmud records a story about Rabban Gamliel who wanted to appoint Sages into leadership positions. In so doing, he says to them, “Do you think I am offering you rulership? I am offering you avdut, the opportunity to serve”. While we might think that the serving being referred to only relates to the people, it actually refers to G-d as well. We are all considered G-d’s servants. The Torah tells us in Vaikra (Leviticus 25:55), “For the Children of Israel are servants to me, they are My servants”. Therefore, as Bnei Yisrael, we all have the potential to become great leaders.

Probably one of the greatest insights into what makes a good leader comes from the transfer of responsibilities from Moses to Joshua, his disciple. Having just been told that he is about to pass away, Moses, instead of concerning himself with his own affairs and those of his family, says, “Who will take the people out and bring them in?” (Bemidbar 27:17). This is a reference to a leader capable of leading them into and out of battle. A leader who will not leave the risks to others but who is prepared to do whatever he or she would expect others to do. A charismatic leader able to inspire all those around him or her.

The upcoming festivals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are also associated with leadership, specifically the leadership of the King of the Universe. Ask your children why we eat a round challah. Hopefully, they will respond that it is because we refer to G-d as our King. During the Mussaf Amidah, one of the three sections is called ‘kingship’, commemorating the creation of man that crowned G-d as King and Master of the world, and we recite the well-known prayer, Avinu Malkenu, acknowledging and recognising that G-d is both our Father (Avinu) and King (Malkenu). In teaching the significance of this prayer to students, I explain that just as a king rules with justice and law, so too are we accountable for the sins we commit. However, just as a parent can never break the bond between themselves and their children, so too, we will always remain G-d’s children, despite our actions. While we may become angry when our children do the wrong thing, we may punish them or insist on consequences for a short period of time, we still love them and care for them in the same way that G-d does for us.

May the Queen’s memory and legacy continue to inspire so many and may they remain an everlasting blessing for the world at large.


About the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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