July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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The word leadership has become a platitude. It is both overused, confused and misused. Pretentious seminars extend false promises of future careers in leadership, while a cottage industry of books provide a step-by-step path to future success. Sadly, the L-word has become fuzzy and undefinable.

Leadership is not about imposing your views or ideas upon others. Those who browbeat others into agreement are bullies, not leaders. Leadership is definitely not about captivating others with your charisma or your personality. We have all witnessed the tragic consequences of cults of personality and their unfortunate victims. Leadership is not about jockeying for attention by acting loud, outlandish or showy. Public attention doesn’t equate to leadership.

Modern society has created strange but hollow profiles of leadership. People are dubbed celebrities even though they haven’t accomplished anything of merit. Some are labeled as “influencers” even though they provide little or no meaningful inspiration. What lies at the heart of real leadership?

In its profiling of the kohen gadol, Parshat Tetzaveh depicts genuine leadership. In the Mikdash arena, the kohen gadol is a leader, welcoming pilgrims, enabling their religious journey and bracing their recovery from sin. What are the traits that a kohen gadol, as leader, should nurture? How should he exercise his leadership?

The answer to these questions lies in his clothing! Each detail of his wardrobe symbolizes a different aspect of leadership. Each part of his uniform is a metaphor for an important leadership trait.

Here are four leadership qualities that the Torah weaves into the kohen gadol’s clothing:


Bearing Responsibility

The kohen gadol wore a lower-body apron known as an “ephod,” which covered his pants but left his front torso exposed. This ephod-skirt was fastened to his upper body by two metal link “suspenders” that stretched to his shoulders. These link suspenders were clasped to his shoulders by two heavy gemstones, or “avnei shoham.” Stones upon his shoulders, stabilized suspenders that, in turn, held up the ephod apron.

These large, glistening stones were engraved with the names of the 12 tribes. The names of all 12 tribes were nestled on the shoulders of the kohen gadol. A leader needs strong and broad shoulders.

Fundamentally, leadership means carrying the weight of other people’s needs and bearing this responsibility with confidence and calm. Some people are crushed by the weight of expectations and the fear of failure. Leaders are ennobled by the dignity of duty and the selflessness of responsibility.

Interestingly, the names of the tribes were divided in two different columns: six names were inscribed on one gem and six on the other gemstone. Sometimes we are forced to carry multiple and even conflicting responsibilities. Carrying different stones on different shoulders signaled the challenge of juggling multiple and often conflicting needs. Leaders know how to manage many weights and many pressures that bear in on them all at once.


Heart Stones

Carrying other people’s burdens on our shoulders isn’t enough. Shoulders aren’t enough. Names upon shoulders is insufficient. Unless those names and those needs also penetrate our hearts, leadership remains cold and functionary.

The kohen gadol wore a chest ornament known as the choshen mishpat. Twelve smaller jewels, also engraved with the names of the tribes, were embedded into this choshen-plate and situated upon the kohen gadol’s heart. As he enters the Mishkan, the kohen gadol carries the needs of his people upon his heart. Without his worrying about national needs, he cannot enter higher ground.

Even leadership based on duty and upon responsibility can become detached from human interaction. Leadership can be depersonalized or detached from human suffering and hardship. Bearing responsibility and attending to duty can become very ideological but not interpersonal. Assisting other people with their needs is one thing, but empathizing with them is quite another. People want to be heard and want to know that their pain and suffering are felt by others. They want to know that their needs are close to a leader’s heart and not just carried upon his shoulders.


When Things Break Down

The kohen gadol also wore a gold plate, or tzitz, upon his upper forehead. This ornament was embossed with the phrase “kodesh laHashem,” which signaled the higher religious consciousness demanded of a kohen. Wearing the name of Hashem upon his front lobe helped the kohen gadol maintain religious focus and avoid silly distractions.

However, beyond religious focusing, the tzitz provided a safety net for ritual malfunction in the Mikdash. Sacrifices that become ritually impure—even by accident—are disqualified. However, if the tzitz is being worn by the kohen gadol, impure sacrifices may still be processed. Sacrifices that had become impure could still be offered, as long as the tzitz was being worn by the kohen gadol. The korban may be impure and the mitzvah impaired, but Hashem’s presence in the Mikdash remains unaffected. It remains solidly represented by the words emblazoned upon the forehead of the kohen gadol. By our recognizing Hashem’s presence, the impure korban is decontaminated and resuscitated.

A leader must appreciate human weakness. Humans will always fall short of their goals, as they struggle and stumble through the religious odyssey. The road to religious success will be paved with some impurity. At low moments people look to leaders for quiet confidence and unwavering faith, not for scolding and rebuke. The kohen must assure us that despite human frailty and repeated failure, Hashem is still part of our Mikdash and still within our hearts. The kohen announces that we remain “kodesh laHashem” even when we fail.


Deflecting Attention

The kohen gadol also wore a pure techelet-dyed robe or me’il on top of his clothing. This striking bluish hue radiated nobility and beauty. The bottom hem of this long robe-like “me’il” was hemmed with bells and pomegranate-shaped fringes. As the kohen gadol walked through the quiet privacy of the Mikdash, the bells clanged against the pomegranate-shaped fringes and produced sound.

A kohen gadol might feel too comfortable in the Mikdash. As groups of regular kohanim shifted in and out of the Mikdash on a weekly basis, the kohen gadol was the only regular who permanently remained in the Mikdash. He spent much time walking alone in the Mikdash; in many situations, entry of other kohanim was barred.

These clanging bells metaphorically signal that the kohen gadol must announce his presence as he strolls through the Mikdash. Despite his stature and his permanent presence in the Mikdash, he too was just a visitor who must knock (or the equivalent) wherever he walked.

Regrettably, leadership sometimes becomes too comfortable and people’s egos swell. Every leader serves something larger than themselves. In the example of a religious leader, that larger “element” is, of course, Hashem. Some people in leadership positions direct attention to themselves or do not do enough to deflect attention from themselves. A genuine leader sidetracks his own personality and redirects attention to something greater than himself. By behaving “as a visitor,” the kohen gadol diverted any notion of his own celebrity.

The L-word, or the concept of leadership, can play on people’s egos and prey on their need for attention. Leadership has little to do with influence or decision making. It has more to do with bearing responsibility, demonstrating deep empathy, bracing people at their weakest moments and directing public attention away from yourself.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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