“I have principles, and if you don’t like them, well, then I have others.”

Rather unprincipled, I would say.

Standing up for one’s beliefs is not always easy, and often results in challenges and disagreement. Naturally, others will prefer to deal with someone more agreeable to their own opinions and desires, even if they may be inappropriate. Regardless, leaders must be people of principle and character.

In the Torah reading of Pinchas, G‑d instructs Moses to prepare for the end of his life. He will not be entering the Promised Land with the nation he has shepherded through the desert for 40 years after all. And what is the very first thing Moses asks for? Nothing for himself, but he asks G‑d to appoint a leader to replace him. And not just any leader. He spells out the qualities of Jewish leadership; the values needed to be a true leader. He doesn’t speak about leadership styles or effective management skills. He talks about integrity, commitment, devotion, faithfulness, and loyalty. And from Moses’s description of the kind of leader that was needed to replace him, we can glean insights into the nature of leadership, be it communal, rabbinic, or otherwise.

“Let the L‑rd, the G‑d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the L‑rd will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”     Numbers 27:16-17.

Moses began by invoking the G‑d of the spirits of all flesh, because a true leader will need to emulate the Almighty who knows the personality and temperament of every individual, and will, therefore, be able to tend to the needs of all—rich or poor, wise or simple.

Secondly, says Moses, we need ish, a person with strength of character, not a weak-kneed wannabe.

He will go forth before them, meaning that he will take the lead. He won’t have to look over his shoulder and check the popularity polls before deciding what his policy should be. He won’t simply follow the whims of the crowd but will do the right thing, regardless.

So that the people should not be like sheep without a shepherd—Moses’s chief concern was the people, and that they should not feel lost or adrift after his departure. He is the ultimate faithful shepherd of Israel who tended to his flock with total commitment and devotion. And he wants to ensure that this brand of leadership continues even after he is gone.

I can think of school principals I’ve worked with over the years. They are leaders of their respective schools. Some are loved, some are respected, and the exceptional ones are loved and respected.

And I view the rabbinate as another paradigm of Jewish leadership. There’s an old Yiddish proverb that reflects the delicate and tenuous nature of this august but vulnerable position. “A rabbi that people don’t want to get rid of is no rabbi. But a rabbi that they do get rid of is no mensch.” When you lead, not everyone will be happy with you. If every single person is happy with you, then you’re probably doing something wrong, or not doing enough of what is right.

From my own experience as a rabbi of many years, I can tell you that while you may have to fight for what you believe in, you’ve got to choose your battles very carefully. If every little thing you disapprove of becomes a combat zone, the communal relationship will not endure. But if you do choose to fight, then you must be convinced of the justness of your position and have the energy and stamina to stand by it until the end.

In my first year as the rabbi of Sydenham Shul, I discovered a synagogue practice that was halachically incorrect. I brought it to the attention of the lay leaders but, to my disappointment, they chose to ignore my advice. I was still a young rabbi, and this was the first test of my rabbinic leadership. I knew that if I turned a blind eye here, my stature as a rabbi who must lead the congregation in adherence to Torah principles would be severely compromised and perhaps even lost for life.

Even the synagogue constitution makes it clear that in matters of Jewish law and ritual, the rabbi’s word is final. If I did nothing, I would be regarded as spineless and become a doormat forever. They argued that this was the way they had been doing things for the past 40 years and now I was looking to change a long-established tradition in the Shul. The problem was that this particular “tradition” was simply wrong. I researched the subject, and it was clear that there could be no justification for it whatsoever. As to why none of my predecessors stopped it, I can only imagine that they had bigger battles to fight. I was having sleepless nights agonizing over what I would have to do if they disregarded my recommendations.

In the end, the lay leaders convened and, thankfully, made the right decision, albeit by a slim majority. Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise which helped establish my leadership for the future decades of my tenure.

As usual, when one stands up for what is right, it ends right. But we do need to tap into our inner resources to find courage to stand strong and persevere in the face of sometimes formidable opposition. Short term, it is challenging, demanding, and tough. But in the long term, ultimately, the truth prevails.

On a recent trip to Israel I was interviewed about my life in the rabbinate. One of my central messages was that it cannot be a career; it must be a calling. If we are not passionate about bringing the flock closer to G‑d, then we are in the wrong business. I’m sure you can make much more money in other professions, but Moses wasn’t discussing money—he was talking morality, responsibility, leadership, and love. 

By Yossy Goldman

The content in this page is produced by Chabad.org, and is copyrighted by the author and/or Chabad.org. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you do not revise any part of it, and you include this note, credit the author, and link to www.chabad.org. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@chabad.org.