Do We Have Leaders Anymore?

We are living amid a time in which many are calling for increased power-sharing within and across organizations — with teams rather than pyramids, intellectual circles rather than hierarchies, and networks in which power is spread evenly across nodules of relationship. Clal’s Executive Vice President, Rabbi Elan Babchuck, co-authored an important book about Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire. While his book suggests that horizontal models of leadership remain rare, it also points to what may lie ahead for organizations and communities in the future.

In many ways, this portends a better future. The centralization of power has created situations rife with abuse and misconduct on the part of those with the most of it. Yet this week’s Torah portion presents an important question: what distinguishes leaders in our own time? Or, perhaps more pointedly, do we even have leaders anymore?

Parshat Achrei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30) takes place after Aaron’s children, Nadav and Avihu, take the diffusion of spiritual and symbolic power to an extreme and seek to emulate public rituals on their own. Their experiment goes terribly wrong, consuming them emotionally and physically. Aaron is left picking up the pieces, not only of his family but also of priestly leadership in Israel.

Amid Aaron’s mourning, God describes the limits of power-sharing when it comes to religious rituals. The Israelites may not emulate the rituals of surrounding peoples (Leviticus 18:3). They may not emulate priestly rituals on their own (Leviticus 17: 8 – 11). But they all can bring animals for sacrifice before the Tent of Meeting. But only the priests can sacrifice them at the altar and handle the blood, which is seen as a life force connected to the Divine (Leviticus 17: 5-6). Among them, only Aaron is to enter the Holy of Holies – and there only at an appointed time, in ways that are meticulously spelled out (Leviticus 16:2 – 24).

All Israelites are to comport themselves as people engaged in sacred service. Yet the priests, and especially the High Priest, have unique roles among them. Our ancient spiritual leaders were to undertake the most challenging tasks, in which precision was of the essence. They used their experience and expertise to ensure that our rituals took place with the highest of standards.

Perhaps this is a lesson for our time, as well. Leaders are the people who take on the most exacting, high-stakes tasks. They are the ones who do what is difficult or risky and which requires carefully honed skills on behalf of an otherwise capable and egalitarian group.

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