Shmini – Dvar Torah March 29 2019 by Dov Ben-ShimonCelebrating Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, Shabbat Services
Shmini – Dvar Torah
March 29, 2019
by Dov Ben-Shimon, Executive Vice President/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
My dear friends, Shabbat Shalom.
This Shabbat is Shemini, one of the most fascinating portions in Vayikra, the book of Leviticus.
Nadav and Avihu, the oldest and second sons of Aaron, are killed for doing the wrong thing, 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: God tells Aaron not to enter the Temple drunk.
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.
There’s clearly a 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 regular people for these kinds of things.
But maybe we do punish leaders for these kinds of things. And what I think you can 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 in general.
For example: 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, in Jewish thought and in the outside world.
In the Odyssey, Homer shows that greedy, unrestrained, irresponsible leadership makes communal life intolerable for everyone.
But good leaders uphold their obligations to the people, and build respect and reciprocity.
It is, in effect, a reverse double-standard.
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. You have to work harder.
That is community leadership.
It’s the essence of B’nai Abraham.
It’s the essence of a Jewish Federation.
And it’s the essence of Rabbi Kulwin, who has been a model of service, of dedication, of leadership.
Many of the leadership relationships of today — in politics, in business, in community — are based on power, on greed, on personal gain.
There’s a term for this in French – deformation professionnelle – professional distortion – which means the way your profession or job can subtly warp your judgment, so that you only see things from that one leadership perspective.
L’etat c’est moi, I am the State, said Louis XIV.
Meaning – the absolute power of the absolute leader.
The unconditional view of sovereignty.
And the cult of personality.
All are distortions.
They prevent us from differentiating between our positions of power and our sense of self.
So how do we overcome this distortion?
We restore balance.
We uphold good norms of behavior.
And we remind ourselves of our own dispensability.
Charles De Gaulle, French President and liberation leader, quoted those who came before him as saying, “the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.”
Even the irreplaceable, the unique, the absolute sovereigns, have a limit.
In ancient Rome, when a great leader enjoyed a triumphal victory, a slave would stand behind him and whisper in his ear, memento homo, “remember – you are only human. Remember – you are only human.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Polish Hasidic master at the turn of the 19th century, said that each one of us should have two pockets, with a note in each.
When you feel low and depressed, reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam, The world was created for me.
But when you’re feeling high and mighty, you should reach into your left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer, I am but dust and ashes.
And their misunderstanding of power and responsibility, of the balance, 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.
That double standard is at the heart of 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.
Leaders aren’t managers – because leadership requires more duties, and more humility. More of a recognition that we are but dust and ashes.
Management, said Peter Drucker, is doing things right.
But leadership is doing the right things. Plural.
Management is doing the things right.
Leadership is doing the right things.
We need to hold our leaders to a different standard: upholding the benefit of our people, and working for higher ideals. Doing the right things.
There are times when we have to celebrate our uniqueness, to lift ourselves up; for us the world was indeed created.
But there are also times when we have to fulfill our roles and tasks in a world that is much bigger than us. To be humble, to know our place.
Where we recognize the responsibilities of leadership and our duty to serve. We are but dust and ashes.
And yes, Louis XIV did indeed serve as King of France for 72 years, and possibly did indeed say that l’etat c’est lui, that he was the State.
But on his deathbed he was also quoted as saying Je m’en vais, mais L’Etat demeurera toujours – I depart, but the State shall always remain.
Understanding which message, from which pocket, we choose, is the core lesson of communal leadership.
It is why Rabbi Kulwin’s leadership has been so critical to your synagogue and to our wider Greater MetroWest community.
And, at the same time, why you will continue from strength to strength with his successor.
Because great institutions hire great leaders, and great leaders create the path, and the conditions, for great successors.
I see that lesson daily in our community: leaders, volunteers, supporters, people like you, who believe in our values, and live them every day.
And for that, I am truly grateful. Shabbat Shalom.