Servant Leadership: The Hallmark of All Great Leaders – World Mizrachi

By World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez

One of the many things that attracted me to the personality and writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook z”l, the founding Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, was the way in which he signed many of his letters.  After signing his name, he would state the following – עבד לעם קדוש על אדמת קודש – a servant of the holy People in the holy land.

Rav Kook saw himself first and foremost as a servant of his people.  In fact, arguably more than any other modern-day Jewish thinker, Rav Kook highlighted the paramount importance of the כלל – the collective.  As important as personal growth and self-perfection is, and indeed it is, the primary purpose of the individual is to serve the כלל, the collective and the greater good.  Rav Kook’s life was the epitome of this selfless dedication.

One of the most important books on leadership in the modern era focuses on this exact point. Published in 1977, “Servant Leadership” by Robert K Greenleaf clarified in a comprehensive and thought-provoking way the centrality of the quality of being a servant in the realm of leadership.  He stated that the desire to serve is what should give birth to the desire to lead, and not the other way around.  Greenleaf says “The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply different from the one who is leader first… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first, to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and the most difficult to administer is this:  Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  This created a paradigm shift in modern leadership thinking.

Indeed, thousands of years before Robert Greenleaf we encounter in the Chumash the ultimate servant leader – Moshe Rabbeinu himself.  In the beginning of this week’s Parasha – יתרו – we see two critical examples of many throughout Moshe

Rabbeinu’s life, of his quality of servant leadership.  When his father-in-law, Yitro, joins him in the desert from Midyan, we see how it is Moshe Rabbeinu himself who stands over him, personally organizing and serving the festive meal.  The Midrach Mechilta brought in Rashi, teaches us this insight based on the seeming irregularity of Moshe’s absence from the meal.  The verse states (Shemot 18,12) regarding the festive meal that was enjoyed when Yitro joined בני ישראל in the desert as follows:

ויבא אהרן וכל זקני ישראל לאכול לחם עם חותן משה לפני האלוקים

“And Aaron and all the Elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before G-d.”

Noting Moshe’s absence at the meal, the Midrash states:

ומשה היכן הלך, והלא הוא שיצא לקראתו וגרם לו את כל הכבוד, אלא שהיה עומד ומשמש לפניהם

“And where did Moshe go to, since it was him who went out to meet him and caused him all of this honor?”

Moshe was present,  was not participating  in the meal as he was serving before them.  This is a great lesson in the realms of both hospitality and leadership. In terms of hospitality – no matter how great the host is, it is incumbent upon him to serve his guests.  So great is hospitality that it transforms the host, the owner of the food being served, into the head-servant dedicated to the needs of others.  It is also critical in the realm of leadership. Moshe, the great Servant-Leader of the Jewish people, was standing in public and acting as a servant to his heathen father-in-law Yitro.

The very next verse highlights the consistency of servant leadership by showing that it is not only in the realm of hospitality that Moshe was a servant, but also in the realm of judgment.  The next verse states that on the following day Moshe sat judging the people from morning till evening.  Moshe would repeat this day in and day out, placing the needs of the people before his own.  We all know what Yitro advised Moshe on how he needed to create a more sustainable system in order to meet the many needs of the people.  In principal though, Moshe saw himself first as a servant of his people and therefore saw it as his responsibility to dedicate his life to their needs.

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his commentary Meshech Chochma on Parshat Noach (Bereshit 9, 20) quotes the Midrash which points out this attribute of servant leadership as the critical difference between Noah and Moses.

“ויחל נח איש האדמה, במדרש פרשה ל”ו סעיף ג’, אמר רב ברכיה: חביב משה מנח, נח משנקרא “איש צדיק” נקרא “איש האדמה”, משה, משנקרא “איש מצרי” (שמות ב, י”ט) נקרא “איש אלקים” (דברים לג, א)

Noah was initially called a great and complete Tzaddik in his time (Genesis 6:9), but after he emerges from the ark he is called by a much more humble term – an איש אדמה – a man of the earth, eventually sinning with the very first thing he plants in the earth – the vine.  On the other hand, Moshe is initially called a איש מצרי – an Egyptian man (Exodus 2:19), but ultimately is called a איש אלוקים – a man of G-d (Deuteronomy 33:1).

What was the reason that on the one hand Noah fell from grace, and on the other hand Moshe rose to such a great status?  The Meshech Chochma gives the following incredible explanation

הענין, דיש שתי דרכים בעבודת השם יתברך, דרך אחד מי שמייחד עצמו לעבודתו יתברך ומתבודד, ויש מי שעוסק בצרכי צבור ומבטל עצמו בשביל הכלל ומפקיר נפשו עבורם

“The answer is that there are two ways to serve Hashem. The first (epitomized by Noah) is the one who isolates himself and dedicates himself to serving G-d (alone), and the other is the one who occupies himself with the needs of the community, nullifying himself for the collective and annulling his needs for them (epitomized by Moshe”)

The fact that Moshe dedicated himself for his entire 40-year leadership career as a servant leader elevated him from the title of Egyptian man to the title of the Man of G-d.  In the strong words of the Meshech Chochma, by literally nullifying himself, making his ego הפקר – ownerless, for the sake of his people, he was transformed into a “Man of G-d”

G-dliness means putting the cause before ourselves and seeing ourselves as servants for the greater good.

This then is the hallmark of great leaders echoing throughout Jewish history, from Moshe Rabbeinu to Rav Kook and until today – the leader is forever a servant, always aligning his needs with the needs of the כלל, the greater good, and never using others as leverage to advance his own personal aspirations.  We exist to serve the כלל, and theכלל  does not exist to serve us.

It is out of a desire to serve that great leaders are born.

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