Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “there is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing, say nothing and be nothing ,” an amazingly astute, yet quite sad statement on human nature. We like to believe our world has evolved in the many centuries since Aristotle, but in truth, we are human, and human nature has been the same since creation.
The Torah tells the story of Adam and Eve, the first rebellious children, who when told not to eat the fruits of one tree, give in to temptation and eat from it anyway. When confronted by their parent, G-d, they lie about eating from it and ultimately get the world’s worst time out, banishment from the Garden of Eden and a life full of hard work, badly behaved children and hardships.
From Noah’s meltdown, (who wouldn’t, after seeing the entire world and everything and everybody they know destroyed in 40 days and 40 nights) to the Hebrews turning back to idolatry and building a golden calf, even after witnessing one miracle after another by the great unseen deity, it seems that humans are hardwired to question authority, to be rebellious and to foster change when change is needed.
There is a story about the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson (1860-1920), who after the Russian revolution and the murder of the Tsar in 1917, saw great changes in the way Jews were treated.
The new Russian Government, run by Bolsheviks, wanted to socialize the country, this meant that everybody, regardless of race, religion and creed, would be equal. At the time, Russia was the poorest country in the world, so it wasn’t hard to convince the farmers and the poor that a big social pot be created that everyone share in. It was far better than the bourgeois class having everything while the proletariat had nothing. After stripping the rich of their wealth (later stolen by the corrupt officals of the Russian Communist Party), the Bolsheviks turned their sights on the religious community. In order for everyone to be equal and realize the supremacy of the State, religion had to be destroyed. There could be no dual loyalties, either you were loyal to the State, which was acceptable or you were loyal to G-d, which in the mind of the Bolsheviks was traitorous.
A conference was called by the Government to discuss sweeping changes in Jewish education. At the time the traditional Jewish educational system was yeshivas in various communities. Secular education for the Jews was nearly unheard of, but insisted upon by the Bolsheviks. The meeting was attended by all the Jewish Rebbes of the time and massive fighting was reported.
At the risk of their lives and liberty, the Rebbes fought passionately and collectively (in a true sense of Jewish unity unseen since) to protect the Jewish common heritage.
At the end of the conference, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk discovered the Lubavich Rebbe in his room crying. Rabbi Chaim, trying to comfort the Lubavitch Rebbe assured him that he need not weep, that he did everything in his power to protect the Jewish way of life. Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber answered, ‘that may be so, but after all that work, we did not succeed in foiling their plans.’
Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber saw himself as more than just an employee of G-d. If he were merely an employee, doing the bare minimum would suffice and allow him to sleep comfortably at night. He could have excused his lack of success by saying ‘that’s the will of the people’, or ‘there are forces greater than me’. He could have said that he put in a great effort and his effort, although it failed, acquitted him of honorability and responsibility, after all, he’s only one man and one man can only do so much. He could have been criticized as ‘holding people to an impossible standard’ or been told ‘that’s just the way it is, accept it for what it is.’
But Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber didn’t accept life the way it was, he was more concerned with his community interest than his own personal record. He didn’t want the accolades, didn’t want the Federation plaques, the newspaper articles and his name on the stationary. What he wanted was to focus purely on G-d’s desire and, much like our forefathers, realized that when the Jewish Community was in peril, one can never surrender or relax, no matter the difficulties that challenge them. He was a true leader.
Leaders grow thick skin, take the hits, but continue to fight, not for personal gain, but to right the wrongs being perpetrated on or by their communities. They sacrifice reputation, salary, family and sometimes their lives to stand up for what’s right.
There are very few of us that can honestly state that we’ve exhausted every option, explored every path on our collective mission to save the world. But if the world is stubborn and refuses to change, does that excuse any of us from continuing to try? If Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Noah, Moses, Joshua, King David, Mordechai, the Maccabbees, Jabotinsky, Begin, Ben Gurion, Sharansky and so many others accepted the world as it was, where would we be today?
The lesson we have to take from Jewish history is simple, and to me, very clear: If you want to call yourself a leader, you must recognize that as long as another person is in physical or spiritual danger, you cannot accept the inevitability of fate and focus on your own self preservation. You must try, again and again, risking your reputation, your salary and sometimes your life, to save the world.