When I was 15 I was in the West End production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. I was one of the ‘cute kids’ that sat on the side, moved occasionally and “aah’d” in the right places. It was a dream come true, being on stage every night under the lights. Although at 15 I was slightly old for this role, because I wasn’t really ‘cute’ anymore, there was something else where I came into my element, I was a leader. It was a role I happily stepped up to, whether it was helping the younger children to the toilet, or leading the group to dinner on Wednesdays when we had a matinee. However as soon as trouble was on the horizon, I fled. I’ll never forget the night a group of us were caught being naughty on stage, and when told off, I never owned up as the ring leader, I shrunk down and let those who were led astray by me take much of the blame. I was a bad leader.
In this week’s parashah, not only do we learn about Joseph and his Technicolor dream coat but we also see one of the many examples of bad leadership in the Torah. Judah, who is not the eldest of Joseph’s brothers, appoints himself as a leader in their plot to make Joseph disappear. He is the one who comes up with the idea of selling Joseph to the passing Midianites, getting rid of his brother and yet not killing him. Our tradition praises Judah for his actions, labelling him as the protector of Joseph. I, however, can’t help thinking that his actions are cowardly, as he doesn’t stick around to deal with the ramifications of the apparent death of his brother.
The next stage of the story is a break in the narrative of Joseph’s life, and talks just of Judah. It begins with Judah leaving his brothers. The Midrash reflects that this was a consequence of the sale of Joseph, that when faced with their father’s grief the brothers turn on Judah, blaming him for his leadership, saying ‘you suggested we sell Joseph and we followed you. Had you suggested we set Joseph free we would have followed you also’. It was at this point that Judah failed in his role of a leader. He had acted wrongly and needed to take the fall for it. Instead he fled. Just like my 15 year old self.
Learning with, and from, a group of leaders and future leaders I feel like we need to take something away from this. Nelson Mandela said ‘It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.’ Good leaders should empower those around them to do their jobs and lead themselves; however they should not be afraid to step up if something goes wrong. In a community a rabbi should lead and also facilitate the leadership of others. It is important that as rabbis we help to develop the leaders of the future, not just in the Jewish community, but throughout. As the former President of the United States and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower, said ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’
I admit, I am pretty harsh on Judah. He didn’t stand up and take the front line, though how can we expect him to be such a great leader when we look at who he has had to learn from? His father, Jacob, was hardly someone I would look to for leadership advice. He lies, cheats and then visibly shows that he has a favourite son. He was certainly not the ideal role model. How was Judah meant to learn? It is the same for us in communities. How can we expect good leaders to come out of our communities if we do not set a good example of leadership?
At 15 I made one of the fundamental errors of leadership, I didn’t own up when things went wrong, I ran away. But I am luckier than Judah. I have been given the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and become a better leader. I hope I can use this to empower the leaders of the future. But I am still happy to “aaah” in the background when appropriate.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.