Our country tuned in to a televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening looking for leadership. We were looking for encouragement. We were looking for direction. We were looking for a plan. We found none. I have often been critical of President Trump. I have been critical because of his rhetoric and I have been critical because I believed many of his policies were antithetical to my Jewish beliefs. Still, I tuned in, like most of the country, hoping that during a pandemic, he would lead.
We want a leader to respond in a time of crisis with strength and with humility. We want a leader to accept their mistakes and shortcomings, to take responsibility. But when someone in a position of power passes the buck, kicks the can down the road, or places the blame on someone else, that person has failed their community as a leader.
When Moses was atop Mount Sinai for too long, the Israelites were nervous. They lost faith in him and lost faith in God. So they turned to Aaron and asked him to build them an idol. He told them to bring him their gold. Our commentators try to defend him, suggesting that this was a stall tactic, that they actually wouldn’t bring him their gold. He figured that by the time they finally did, Moses would return. Others cite a midrash that involves the Israelites first approaching Hur and asking him to build an idol. The midrash claims that he refused and was killed by the mob of Israelites, so when they approached Aaron, he was simply trying to stay alive. Yet when Moses asked him about the idol, he said that they gave him the gold and he hurled it into the fire and a golden calf came out. Aaron was essentially saying “it wasn’t me!” He tried to place blame on others and refused to take responsibility.
No one is expecting our leaders to be perfect. They will all make mistakes along the way. We all do! But we are expecting our leaders to lead, and that can only happen is and when they put others first. Leaders lead when they put the needs of the community they serve before their own ego, image, self-interests, or bank account. Leaders lead when they admit their fears, concerns, and shortcomings.
I hope and pray for a leader that will lead us during these challenging times. I find inspiration from the response of officials on the state and local level, and community organizations who are leading by example and doing what they must to keep our communities safe, even when the leader of the free world refuses to do so. Being a leader is not about a title that one has. Being a leader is about how one acts. So let us all lead by example and act in a way that puts the health and safety of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities first before anything else.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky