Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When Leaders Go Astray

I recently learned a fascinating piece of Gemara (Talmud) found in Masechet Nedarim, 81a, which I just completed learning this past week (at least for this time around as we are always cycling back through learned material). This section of Talmud is about our vows and promises, the words we use and the limit of the power of those words as well as the largess of their potential. In this particular text we are taught that Torah Scholars (the academic and practical and perhaps spiritual leaders of the Jewish community hopefully) do not generally produce Torah Scholars as children, but rather our Torah Scholars who are supposed to be important role models in our community often come up through the ranks, so to speak, from the impoverished members of that community. Why is this the case? In typical Gemara style, the Rabbis do not hesitate to provide reasons. One reason suggested for this statement is so that one group of people does not think that the Torah is exclusively theirs and not belonging to others. Another Rabbi states that the gift of Torah should never be taken for granted and is ultimately meant to be earned and honored for its own worth by each person who embraces it. Yet another perspective is that those who think they are entitled to such an inheritance may take it for granted, will become corrupt and not act appropriately for the community. Sound familiar? It appears that we have an interesting slippery slope of what can happen when our leaders and scholars and teachers do not work hard every day to maintain their position but rather come to a point where they feel entitled and above the masses, so to speak. With so many of our religious and political leaders succumbing to their perceived privilege of power in being “above or outside of the law” regarding accountability for their actions, this is definitely a dynamic with which we are all too familiar in our world today. Another nod to the wisdom of the teachers from long ago!

It should be pointed out that this discussion in our text takes place within the larger context of consideration of the limits of the power of various members of the community, including and especially those to whom members of the collective may come to for guidance and help and directives on all matters of life, specifically here regarding consequences of words and promises (or vows) they have uttered. Further, we are reminded that the entirety of the law was in fact given to all members of the collective and all of those people have equal access to it. Thus, we understand that our Torah scholars (think rock stars for this community) can and do come from those who are least resourced and privileged, and perhaps just because of that station in life, know a thing or two about how to behave, how to answer people’s queries and how to, in a word I think we all know by now, be a “mensch.”

Omar Saif Ghobash in his Letters to a Young Muslim also has what to say about leaders and leadership, limits and how leaders in one’s world (their rock stars, if you will) can be misinformed and lead others astray if they do not observe necessary limits. He shows his son, other young Muslims, and all of us in these letters the potential problem with various leadership types. He speaks out specifically about the “Muslim warrior” as seen in today’s world – taking matters into his or her own hands supposedly in the name of Allah. How do they know that they are doing anything near the will of Allah, he enjoins his son to ask himself. He challenges his son and others with these words, “Perhaps the modern Muslim warrior is one who embraces life in its complexity and fights for social and economic justice with his or her mind, rather than for a stretch of desert territory with his or her body.” He goes on to say that “very fixed ideas of what it means to be a good Muslim” as taught by leaders, imams, and so many others need to be challenged and that his son has to take great care in choosing his role models.

In the United States today and throughout the world, too many people are taking on the reins of leadership and telling us through their words and actions, too often violent and destructive, what THEY think should be. Consider the Jewish and Israeli community years ago, when a young man by the name of Yigal Amir followed the teachings of his Rabbis and teachers who used and manipulated the Jewish concept of “threatening life” to speak of Yitzchak Rabin (may his memory be for a blessing) and then felt he had permission as “a good Jew” to kill him and then did so. For a few moments in time, Jewish voices around the world looked at language used and impressions made by what we and our leaders say; and then after too little time, it was basically back to business as usual. Of course we know that this notion of following the teachings one learned and engaging in violent behaviors is repeated too often and is profoundly frustrating.

There is an important lesson here regarding the danger of leaders becoming too comfortable, too revered, too honored and being treated as if and then acting as though they are above the law to which all are subjected. Jewish Law is structured in such a way that DOES NOT allow this to seep into our psyche as an accepted teaching. This is why the King of the Jewish nation as it would evolve was instructed to always have the Torah by him, why so many people continue learning the text of our heritage every day and we are oft taught that it is our actions and initiatives in our daily secular and general lives that are the true test of our character, not the family from which we come and not the amount of knowledge we have. It is for this reason, perhaps, that those who are worthy as Torah scholars do not reach that status by inheritance, privilege or predestined circumstances, but rather, by how they pull themselves up, address the challenges of their lives, and thereby know how to act as human as possible and be the role models we are to follow. I think there is an important lesson for all of us here.

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