When leaders are led
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When leaders are led

A bridge collapse in Minnesota in which at least five people were killed may yet serve as the paradigm for what leadership is not about.

Over two years ago, that bridge was deemed to be "structurally deficient," one of more than 1,160 bridges in Minnesota so designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The state’s own Department of Transportation concluded as much four years earlier. Yet nothing but "Band-Aid work" was done to the bridge — not in ‘001 and not in ‘005.

Minnesota is not alone. There are more than 70,000 bridges across the United States that are considered structurally deficient, 700 of them right here in New Jersey and ‘,110 just across the Hudson in New York State.

Band-Aid work has been done on some of these bridges, while others remain untouched. Why? To properly repair a bridge costs millions upon millions of dollars. (To fix all of the bridges bearing this classification is estimated to cost about $188 billion.) To get that money requires raising taxes. Raising taxes all too often means losing re-election.

Besides, to properly fix a bridge often takes many years and inconveniences a lot of voters while the work is being done. Politicians prefer short-term projects that inconvenience no one for too long and are noticeable at the next election.

It boils down to a simple phrase: Always give the people what they want, not what they need.

Politicians aside, there are leaders in all walks of life — even religious leaders — who, because they depend on others to keep their jobs, choose the politically pragmatic path.

When it comes to providing an example of what a leader should not be, the Torah offers us Aaron, brother of Moses and Israel’s first high priest. At the same time, it offers us a look at the tragic possibilities that await a people whose leaders are the ones being led. What has always puzzled me is why the sages of blessed memory decided to turn Aaron’s vice into his virtue, thereby destroying the Torah’s lesson on leadership.

The lesson is mainly contained in a single chapter, Exodus 3′. Moses has been absent from the Israelite camp for more than five weeks and the former slaves feel abandoned by him and his God. They demand of Aaron, "Make us a god who shall go before us" in Moses’ stead. Aaron responds by asking them for their gold jewelry. These "he took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf." (See Exodus 3′:1-4.)

Aaron knows what the people need — to remain faithful to the God who had freed them from bondage — but he gives them what they want. He himself admits as much in Exodus 3′:’1-‘4:

"Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?’ Aaron said, ‘Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us….’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!"

The Torah also passes judgment of sorts when it notes "that the people were out of control —since Aaron had let them get out of control." (See Exodus 3′:’5)

For reasons unknown, we are not told here how God responded. We do learn about it 40 years later, when Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:’0 (which we read last Shabbat) that God "was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him," but Moses talked Him out of it.

Because Aaron gave the people what they wanted, not what they needed, 3,000 Israelites were killed that day by the swords of the Levites at Moses’ command. Countless others apparently died in a plague.

That is a high price to pay for bad leadership.

As noted, however, this is not the way the sages saw it. For reasons one can only speculate about, they turned the story on its head, making Aaron a hero worthy of emulating. Thus, says the great sage Hillel, "be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them to the Torah." (See Mishnah Avot 1:1′.)

Aaron, you see, was engaged in a holding action. To keep the people — whom he loved — at peace with themselves and their fellows, he gave in to their demand. (Aaron made the calf out of his love for Israel. One midrash, for example, has Aaron saying to himself, "If they build [the calf], the sin will attach to them; better that the sin should attach to me and not to Israel." See Leviticus Rabbah 10:3.) Never mind that the Torah has Moses declaring that what Aaron did was a "great sin," or that rather than calming the Israelites "the people were out of control — since Aaron had let them get out of control." Ignore that God wanted Aaron dead on the spot and Moses had to plead for his brother’s life. Aaron was the model of righteousness and enlightened leadership.

Of course, since the Torah text cannot be used to prove this, the sages chose another way. Thus, for example, in an expanded version of Mishnah Avot, called the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, where Hillel’s statement opens Chapter 1′, there is a succession of midrashim buttressing each part of Hillel’s claim, none of which deal with the molten calf incident but all of which build up Aaron’s image.

And that is a pity, because it buries an important lesson the Torah is trying to teach: Leadership is an awesome responsibility. Leadership is knowing about what needs to be done and doing it, regardless of what the opinion polls say. Failure to be a good leader can lead to tragedy — including at times death and destruction — for those being led.

Put in simpler terms, bridges collapse when leaders fail to lead.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.

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