The greatest success is the ability to own up to failure
In the Torah view, the single most essential ingredient of a person’s fitness to hold a position of responsibility is his ability to accept responsibility. There is no greater disqualification for leadership than one’s unwillingness to say the three words, “I was wrong.”
It works the other way, too: Someone with a conscience that impels him to accept blame when justified is also likely to feel unable to stand idly by when wrongs need righting, and will more readily volunteer to step up to act and take responsibility.
The Kli Yakar explains that Yaakov Avinu’s blessing to Yehudah of “Your brothers will concede to you,” meaning that his would be the shevet of kingship in Klal Yisrael, was a reflection of Yehudah’s own concession so many years earlier that Tamar was right and he was terribly wrong. It is not coincidental that Dovid Hamelech, the personification of Jewish royalty, is also the paradigmatic baal teshuvah (see Avodah Zarah 4b).
The self-mastery that it takes to own up to failure is the strongest indicator that a person, if given the opportunity, will exercise mastery over others in a benevolent and just way. Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l observed that the phrase “avid inish l’achzukei b’diburei,” which states the halachic presumption that a person would rather double down on his words rather than recant, uses the words “avid inish,” hinting that such a person is a slave to the need to live in the fantasy world of perfection. By contrast, he said, the Aramaic term for changing one’s mind and conceding error is “imlich,” sharing the root of melech, for such a person is truly king over himself.
The greatest success is the ability to own up to failure. The surest sign of strength is the readiness to admit weakness. The less one has the need to trumpet his own worth and the more willing he is to ascribe worth to others, the more secure it shows him to be in his self-worth.
In his description of the necessary qualities of a Jewish king, the Rambam makes clear that a humble disposition and a genuine sense of caring about others rank high among them. In Hilchos Melachim (2:6), he writes:
Just as the Torah grants him great honor and obligates everyone to honor him, so does it command that his heart be internally lowly and hollow…. He should be gracious and merciful to small and great, and be always concerned with their needs and welfare, and be considerate of the honor of even the smallest of them, and when he should speak softly to the nation…. He must always conduct himself with exceeding humility. We have none greater than Moshe Rabbeinu, who said, “What are we?” He must bear their burdens, complaints and anger…. The Torah calls him a shepherd….
According to a saying attributed to Rav Yisrael Salanter, someone working for the klal needs to be mindful of three things: Not to get upset, not to tire, and nohr tzu tuhn, nisht oyftzutuhn. Although that last one loses something in the translation from Yiddish, it means that one must seek “only to do, not to accomplish.” Ours is to do the deeds that need doing, knowing that only Hashem determines the eventual success or failure of the endeavor. All three of these pieces of advice for leaders stem from the same root, that of knowing it’s not about me, but about the need at hand.
This topic has been on my mind during recent weeks, when the parshiyos we’ve read in shul have dealt so extensively with the parameters and prerequisites for Jewish leadership, whether that of Yosef, Yehudah, or Reuven. Then, on Erev Shabbos parshas Vayigash, came the tragic news of the petirah of Rebbetzin Aviva Weisbord of Baltimore, wife of Ner Israel mashgiach ruchani Rav Beryl Weisbord, and a bas gedolim, as the daughter of Rav Yaakov Weinberg and granddaughter of Rav Yaakov Ruderman.
I did not know Rebbetzin Weisbord personally, and so I’m not capable of according her the public kavod acharon she deserves and will surely be given by those who knew her well. But I do know she was a leader, someone who, like her mother before her, held many positions of communal responsibility and was willing, in turn, to accept responsibility.
My introduction to her came only this past year, in connection with the open letter that was published this past summer to highlight serious concerns regarding the unhealthy political hyper-partisanship we saw affecting the Torah community. When approached about signing the statement, she immediately saw its value, and after some discussion, she lent her name to the effort, writing that “we can’t allow for shtikah k’hoda’ah.” To me, that bespoke the essence of what it means to take responsibility, opting to speak up when she could well have expected to receive critique; politely declining to get involved would surely have been easier to do. (Ultimately, she emailed to say, “Responses to me are running 10:2 positive, with a number of people expressing relief that someone said what needs to be said.”)
Her thoughts on the idea of Jewish leadership appear in a moving essay she published in Jewish Action in 2016, and the following excerpts are still particularly relevant:
My leadership training began around age five. That’s when my mother, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg a”h, recruited me to participate in a Ner Israel Ladies Luncheon. Did I know that watching her present a vision to the group, making sure they took responsibility for the implementation of that vision, and then giving them all the credit for the final product was leadership at its best? Not a clue! But by the time I was fifteen, my heart and head had absorbed these basic principles; everything else was commentary.
Back then, we didn’t know or think about self-fulfillment, the woman’s role or “maximizing our contribution” to Judaism. Life in our extended household, an environment that included my grandmother, Rebbetzin Feige Ruderman and her mother, Rebbetzin Dvora Kramer — all very strong, exceedingly capable women — was about seeing a need and stepping in to meet that need. That definition of leadership works for me until today, and not only because it was planted in my genes.
To me, the question of leadership is not necessarily about how I find fulfillment or the impact I want to have. It’s about asking, “Why are we here?” It’s about serving HaKadosh Baruch Hu to the best of my ability; doing what He wants in the way that fits the values and standards of Judaism…
Leadership starts with a sense of responsibility, seeing something missing or off course and then stepping in to create or fix. That willingness to assume a burden, to make a commitment, is the beginning of leadership.
Once it’s not about “Me,” many issues that we find challenging fade away: Is there someone who can do a better job with this than I can? No problem — let’s give her the responsibility. Is it important to train others, young women who will be able to take their place at the heads of organizations? Certainly — I can share my knowledge and experience by mentoring someone and helping her prepare to take over. In fact, I can be objective enough to know when it’s time to hand the baton to the next generation and can do so gladly….
Perhaps the greatest reward of serving in leadership positions is the opportunity to know myself and be myself. Living a truly authentic, directed life is what Judaism is about; and feeling that message deeply while conveying it unabashedly is what leadership is about and why it is so compelling.
After I heard about Rebbetzin Weisbord’s petirah, I happened to speak with someone whose husband had been one of the founding members of an out-of-town kollel over two decades ago. She told me that as a born-and-bred New Yorker, it was difficult for her to decide to pick up and move to a community that was a comparative Jewish desert. But then she spoke with Aviva Weisbord, who suggested trying to imagine herself at age fifty, thinking back about her life. Might she then look back and see joining this kollel as one of the more courageous and enriching things she’d have done with her life?
That advice gave her the strength to make that move, which indeed was a wonderful experience. That was the Rebbeztin — a leader who encouraged others to lead with courage as well.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 843. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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