Emor: Who is qualified to lead?

Parashat Emor details many of the ritual obligations of the cohanim, the priests, as well as the special, additional obligations of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. Though Leviticus itself seems to take for granted that there is a High Priest above all the other priests, one midrash, Midrash Tanchuma pauses and asks “What makes the “great priest” so great in the first place?”

Initially, Tanchuma explains that the Cohen Gadol is called “Gadol” — great — because he is superior to the other Cohanim in five ways: beauty, strength, wealth, wisdom, and age. This is a fairly simple understanding of leadership. In this view, you are qualified for leadership based off of a series of innate qualities. If you find someone with these qualities, he’s qualified for leadership, while anyone lacking these qualities does not deserve to lead. With this simple picture in mind, our mirash starts going through this list one by one explaining how each of these qualities matters for the position of High Priest. Beauty — because of course we want the High Priest to be handsome! Strength — because making that many sacrifices in one day requires physical strength.

And wealth. When it gets to the quality of wealth, the text suddenly pauses — what if an appointed Cohen Gadol isn’t wealthier than the other Cohanim? In fact, the midrash recalls, this happened once. A man named Pinchas Hasatat was elected as High Priest, but continued working in a stone quarry in order to sustain himself. When they saw this, the other Cohanhim flooded to help him, and they filled up the quarry with donated gold coins. The text then explains the phrase from our parasha “ha’cohen ha’gadol me’echav” reading not as “the priest greater than his brothers,” but rather as “the priest is great from his brothers”. His fellow priests provide him with the greatness he lacks; the leader requires people to rally behind him and support him in order for him to be great enough for the task set before him. He doesn’t have to be perfect to take on leadership; he just needs support from those around him. This offers us a completely different model of leadership than the first one the text lays out. This isn’t a list of qualities he must have in order to be chosen as leader — it’s a list of things that we, as his community, must help him to become.

And what if the appointed leader lacks wisdom? The midrash cites the example of David, who, when he was first appointed to lead the Israelites into battle, lacked the necessary military experience. Shaul challenged David on this, rudely asking him what qualified him to lead the battle. Rather than turning away from the task because of his lack of experience, David turned to talents honed through his prior experiences as a shepherd. In order to keep his flock safe, he had fought of bears and lions. Though this obviously is different from battles between humans, David argued that this experience, while different from war, gave him the confidence and wisdom necessary to take on this new leadership role, despite his lack of traditional preparation. Here, we see also another model of leadership — leadership not about having exactly the right prior experiences, but about the ability to draw wisdom from a wide variety of past experiences, even those that might seem too distant to be of any use.

In fact, David’s use of his prior experience as a shepherd is so convincing that Shaul takes off his robe and other military gear and gives it all to David. However, David, realizing that Shaul’s garments do not fit him properly, returns them to Shaul and goes on without them, indicating the wisdom to know he must grow into his own kind of leader. David can’t grow into the leader he must be by imitating Shaul — by literally wearing his cloak — but must instead shed this old model of leadership and grow into a new kind of leader, drawing from his past experiences and not overly reliant on the model set for him by Shaul. Here we see that leadership isn’t just the passing of mantle from the old leader onto a new leader who strives to be just like his predecessor. Instead, leadership is a creative process of reinvention, and the role of leader changes as each new person steps in to fill it.

This midrash ends by stating that each new Cohen Gadol became qualified for the position the moment he was anointed for it — that is, he grew into the position by stepping into it. No one is ever fully prepared to take on a position of that magnitude; instead, everyone must grow into the role by first taking it on, and having the faith and courage to trust that they would grow into the role in time.

I’d like to offer a few reflections for IfNotNow leaders based off of this midrash. Firstly, to all of us who are part of the movement: remember that our leaders need our support. By rallying behind our leaders and supporting them, we help make them, and us, better. We need to build a community that holds our leaders to high standards, while also supporting them in taking on the risks that leadership always entails, and knowing that they are in the act of growing into the roles they’ve taken on.

Secondly, for those who are considering taking on leadership, of any scale: I know it can be terrifying. There are multiple times this year in IfNotNow where people have asked for someone to take on a role, and I have hesitated to help for fear of being unqualified and unprepared. There are also many times when I have said yes, then been overcome with fear about what I just got myself into. I think this midrash offers three points of hope to those of us who are afraid of taking on leadership. We need to become unstuck in the first model of leadership that this midrash shares — the belief that qualification is just a list of preset qualities and nothing more.

This midrash offers three other possibilities that can empower us to take on leadership, and reject the idea that qualification is just a pre-determined list. Firstly, it reminds us that other people have got your back — behind each leader is a community of people rooting and fighting for them. Secondly, there are places to draw strength and wisdom from in everybody’s past life experiences, even if they seem unrelated and distant. Our past will also be there for us, furnishing, even in seemingly distant ways, the strength to go forward. Lastly, leaders can, and will, grow into the role. If we take the first step and say yes to something that seems too big at first, we still have the potential to grow into the leader that you didn’t know you could be.

Our American Jewish community desperately needs new leadership: leadership grounded in the values of the Jewish tradition, leadership committed to freedom and dignity for all, to an end for the occupation, to a Judaism grounded in hope in vision, and not in fear and isolation. Inside IfNotNow, and without, there is work to be done that can only happen if people fearlessly step into new positions, and take on tasks bigger than themselves. I hope this midrash can help offer us the faith and courage required to do that, and can help us know that there are always sources of strength, in our communities and in ourselves, for us to draw from in the path towards leadership.

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