Are Our Leaders True Leaders?

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

The story depicted in Parshas Shemini exemplifies the essence of authentic leadership.. Moshe Rabbeinu was the most humble man on earth (Bamidbar 12:3 וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד, מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה). His interaction with his older brother Aharon Hacohen over the burning of the sin offering instead of eating thereof by his sons during the inauguration of the Mishkan demonstrates this humility.

On the day the Mishkan was inaugurated, a terrible tragedy occurred – two of Aharon Hacohen’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died in a strange fire while doing their Avodah.

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה’ אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה’ (ויקרא י:א-ב)

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before ה’ strange fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Hashem  and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Hashem.

Later that same day, Moshe Rabbeinu confronted Aharon Hacohen’s two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. He angrily asked, “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the holy area as I commanded? It is most holy!”

מַדּ֗וּעַ לֹֽא־אֲכַלְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־הַֽחַטָּאת֙ בִּמְקֹ֣ום הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ כִּ֛י קֹ֥דֶשׁ קׇֽדָשִׁ֖ים הִ֑וא וְאֹתָ֣הּ ׀ נָתַ֣ן לָכֶ֗ם לָשֵׂאת֙ אֶת־עֲוֹ֣ן הָעֵדָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם לִפְנֵ֥י ה’ (ויקרא י:יז)

Moshe’s annoyance with Aharon’s sons is understandable; sufficient tragedy had occurred that day when their deceased brothers brought a strange fire without being instructed to do so, with a dreadful outcome. Seemingly, the remaining sons of Aharon disregarded their instructions.

However, Aharon provided a reasoned explanation. Considering the horrific events of that day with his sons’ deaths, he felt eating the sin offering may not have been appropriate. He said, “Such awful things have happened to me! If I ate the sin offering today, would G-d approve?”

הֵן הַיּוֹם הִקְרִיבוּ אֶת-חַטָּאתָם…וַתִּקְרֶאנָה אֹתִי כָּאֵלֶּה, וְאָכַלְתִּי חַטָּאת הַיּוֹם — הַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינֵי ה’ (ויקרא י:יט)

According to the interpretation of the Gemara in Zevachim, Aharon responded to his brother by asking, “Is it not the Halacha that the special dispensation allowing  Oneninim to eat the sacrifices only applied to other Korbanot?”

Strikingly, the Torah states:  וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו (ויקרא י:כ). The Torah records: “Moshe listened to Aharon’s argument and he approved.” Moshe told Aharon, “You are right and I was wrong.” The Talmud indicates that Moshe was not just saying, “I never heard this Halacha from the Almighty.” Moshe was saying, “I heard this Halacha from the Almighty but I forgot it. You reminded me and you are correct!” 

ויטב בעיניו: הודה ולא בוש לומר לא שמעתי אלא שמעתי ושכחתי

Furthermore, Moshe Rabbeinu sent out a proclamation throughout the entire camp letting everyone know “ I was mistaken and Aharon  my brother was right and taught me the law.” 

וַיִּשְׁמַע  משֶׁה וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו, הוֹצִיא כָּרוֹז לְכָל הַמַּחֲנֶה וְאָמַר, אֲנִי טָעִיתִי אֶת הַהֲלָכָה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִי בָּא וְלִמֵּד לִי (ויקרא י:כ)

In Moshe Rabbeinu’s position, having the awesome responsibility of being the Giver of Torah to the Jewish people, he could well have been worried about his reputation. If Moshe Rabbeinu can hear something from the Ribono shel Olam and then forget it, that is the last thing in the world that he would want to make public knowledge. If he could forget this Halacha, who is to say that he couldn’t forget 612 other halachos? Moshe could have rationalized to himself, “Okay, I know I am wrong. But for the sake of the ‘greater good,’ in order to protect the ‘integrity of the Torah’… However, not only does Moshe not say, “I never heard this,” he confesses that he heard it and forgot! He said: I heard it, and I forgot it.

 ויטב בעיניו: הודה ולא בוש לומר לא שמעתי אלא שמעתי ושכחתי (רש”י, ויקרא י:כ, ספרא, שמיני ב:יב, זבחים קא ע”ב)

In addition, Moshe publicizes the incident throughout the entire camp. “Moses heard and he approved” (Leviticus 10:20). He dispatched a herald to the entire camp and said: ‘I was mistaken regarding the halacha, and Aharon my brother came and taught me.’ מִיָּד (ויקרא י, כ): וַיִּשְׁמַע משֶׁה וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו, הוֹצִיא כָּרוֹז לְכָל הַמַּחֲנֶה וְאָמַר, אֲנִי טָעִיתִי אֶת הַהֲלָכָה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִי בָּא וְלִמֵּד לִי.

Moshe Rabbeinu fulfills the Mitzvah of  מדבר שקר תרחק (שמות כג:ז) “Distance yourself  from a false matter”: absolutely without making any allowances. By his behavior, Moshe Rabbeinu is teaching us a lesson about Jewish leadership. The example of leadership is that it is necessary to be able to say “I’m wrong. I made a mistake.” This is also something that is very lacking today amongst our leaders. Having the courage to stand up and admit such a thing requires a truly courageous individual. That is the type of person that is needed for Jewish leadership.

This shows true leadership – the willingness to admit you’re wrong, even to a subordinate.

Additionally, Aharon also displayed his quality of leadership in his advisory role. What advisors must do – is to provide expertise, respectfully disagree when needed, and explain logically so even leaders listen. Advisors must not just be “yes men.” They must provide careful, well-reasoned guidance – like Aharon did with his proficiency. When Moshe Rabbeinu considered Aharon’s perspective, he recognized Aharon’s view was correct and he was mistaken. This ability to reevaluate his position shows true leadership which means pursuing truth and judgment over ego, title, or insecurity about admitting flaws.

The lessons to be learned from Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hacohen are so vital for our leaders today.

Unlike many contemporary leaders, Moshe Rabbeinu prioritized truth and accountability over maintaining his image. True leadership, as exemplified here, embraces open acknowledgment of errors.

Aharon, acting as an advisor, displayed how to offer expertise and respectfully disagree when necessary

The Torah teaches us that contemporary leaders must internalize and strive to emulate the exemplary leadership exhibited by Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hacohen if they are to effectively lead their organizations and communities. By embracing humility, accountability, and the willingness to admit mistakes, leaders can foster an environment of trust and growth. These timeless principles of leadership, as demonstrated in the story of Moshe and Aharon, serve as invaluable lessons for leaders in navigating the complexities of today’s world.

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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