from the heart of jerusalem

True leadership is humble


What makes a leader? The question consumes countless books, seminars and leadership training programs in countless universities and business training models.

But it’s worth noting that there are two different types of leaders.

One, the more commonly considered, is the type of person who leaps forward under challenging circumstances, who inspires others to follow behind. I have vivid memories of hearing just that at the end of the IDF’s officer training course, from a commander I greatly respected: “The measure of an officer is whether he or she can become the person others will follow anywhere.”

And yet there is a second type of leader, who accomplishes much more than having others follow; he or she inspires others to leap ahead. Such leaders do not lead; they inspire.

Such a person was Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who first taught me to read from the Torah and whose beautiful Shabbat tunes and guitar playing inspired me in so many ways. Much of what I am, I owe to him, and every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when I have the privilege of leading Yeshivat Orayta in the High Holiday prayers, his melodies still echo in my head. This week’s thought is dedicated to his memory.

There is a fascinating detail in the story of Moshe, which of course is the beginning of the story of the Exodus, perhaps the greatest upheaval in human history. After the brief description of his birth and salvation on the Nile River at the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, the Torah fast-forwards to his teenage years: “And the lad grew [up] and ventured out to see how his brethren were faring” (Exodus 3:11).

This leads to the famous story of Moshe saving a hapless Jewish slave from the whip of his Egyptian taskmaster. So why is his name not mentioned? Why is he simply called “the lad?”

This is not the only time we find Moshe’s name conspicuously missing. In the Haggadah, his name is mentioned only once — describing the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea: “And [the Jews] believed in G-d, and in Moshe, His servant.”

And as we have previously discussed, there is another place one finds Moshe’s name absent. From his birth in Shemot until the end of the Torah, Moshe receives mention in every portion save one: Tetzaveh.

The Midrash suggests that when Moshe, in his attempt to save the Jewish people after the Golden Calf, pleas before G-d to be erased from His book “if You will destroy this people” (Exodus 32:32). The decree of such a righteous person must be fulfilled to some degree, so Hashem leaves out Moshe’s name in this week’s portion.

But why specifically Tetzaveh? Perhaps because this portion, in discussing the mitzvah to build a Mishkan, focuses largely on the role of the kohanim — the daily lighting of the menorah, the special clothing, the ceremony inducting Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. In short, this portion introduces the kehuna, the priesthood, even though the actual dedication and commencement of their service will only begin in the next book of the Torah, Vayikra.

One might have expected to find a hint of jealousy or at least hesitation on Moshe’s part, considering this was a role neither he nor any of his offspring would ever enjoy. Yet he displays no struggle. And, perhaps to make this point, does not even include his own name in the portion. 

Perhaps Moshe was following Aaron’s lead on this topic. When Moshe debates with G-d Himself whether he is the most appropriate person to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, he suggests that Aaron might be a better choice, especially since he had remained with the Jewish people in Egypt while Moshe led a much easier life in Midian. Yet Hashem’s response is that “Aaron your brother will come out to greet you, and he will rejoice in his heart” (ibid. 4:14).

Indeed, Aaron himself displayed no envy or struggle with Moshe’s appointment as leader. He simply rejoiced.

This is especially significant given the enmity found so often amongst brothers in the Torah. In fact, the first murder was between brothers, not to mention the conflict between Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, and of course Yosef and his brothers. One wonders where these two brothers, along with their sister Miriam, learned this impressive attitude. They must have had incredible parents. Yet we know very little about their parents; the first time we find mention of them, they are not even named but are described (ibid. 2:1-2) as “a man” and “a woman” (ish and isha).

Interestingly, this the same term used in Pirkei Avot to describe the value of stepping up when there is no one else to do the job: “Bemakom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lehiyot ish — in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Avot 2:6). When there is no one to do the job, step up and get it done.

One day, now a teenager, Moshe ventures out and sees the suffering of his brothers, sees an Egyptian beating a Jew, and (ibid. v.12) “looks back and forth and sees there is no man [ish].” Here, too, Moshe is not named; he is described as a lad. Because to be a leader, a person has to get his ego out of the way. It has to be about the job that must be done, the greater cause, the people. In fact, the smaller the ego, the greater the leader.

In fact, healthy systems of government inherently have a well thought-out separation of powers, which entail leaders realizing not only what they are meant to do, but what they are not meant to do. When the president interferes with the judiciary, things get complicated. The same is true of healthy institutions in general: if the CEO gets too involved with the accounting department, it doesn’t work.

This, then, was Moshe’s greatness: he knew when to get out of the way; his goal was never the greatness of Moshe, it was always the greatness of G-d. It is indeed no accident that the greatest leader in Jewish history is also described as its most humble. Moshe was a model of selflessness, perhaps the most necessary prerequisite for a truly great leader.

Such a giant of humility was Cantor Sherwood Goffin. I was privileged as a boy to grow up in the incredible community of the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Its great leaders — Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Herschel Cohn, Rabbi Effie Buchwald and Cantor Goffin — were all giants in their own way, and somehow each knew their role and their gifts, which made it such a special place. Some of us still think of it as Camelot: a magical place, a magical time.

And there is no one I can think of who modeled such pure, sweet humility and fine sterling character more than Chazzan Sherwood Goffin. In all the years I merited to know him, be inspired by his beautiful tefillot, hear his magical music, share his Shabbat table, and imbibe his joy for Judaism, I never once saw him raise his voice, cannot ever remember seeing him angry, and never saw him miss an opportunity to show sensitivity for those less fortunate. He was content to be the musical soul of the rabbis’ teaching, and he inspired many of us to soar through his model of how special a human being could be.

Now, he truly sings with the angels. May his memory be a merit and a blessing for us all.

Wishing his family comfort, and all of us a chag kasher v’sameach and a wonderful Pesach.