Rabbi Michael Barclay
Emor - Ethical Leadership Through Service
Our Torah reading this week finds us deep in the Book of Leviticus; and the portion is filled with instructions and prohibitions for the Cohanim: the Priests of Israel descended from Aaron. Diet, haircutting, where they can walk, how they should observe holidays, and whom they can and cannot marry are all restrictions on the Cohanim that we find in this week’s reading. But most Jews are not Cohanim, and even if they are it is doubtful that in the 21st century they are preparing themselves to serve as Cohanim in the Temple (may it be rebuilt in our time). So how is this week’s Torah Portion relevant to our times?
The answer is vitally important for any and all who are willing to be leaders in the world. To understand the importance more deeply, we need to take an honest look at what the Cohanim were in ancient times (today, it is a mostly honorific position whose responsibilities are only a few tasks).
The Cohanim were the spiritual leaders of ancient Judaism. As instructed by God, they held the leadership positions with regard to anything spiritual, and were responsible for the spiritual welfare of the Hebrew people. They received tithes from the people rather than holding outside jobs. Although they were trained in proper behavior, you only became a working Priest of Israel if your father was a Cohen. It was a job not based on performance standards, but entirely based in lineage.
As we see today, often people who inherit their jobs through lineage or nepotism of any sort are not the most efficient at their job, nor are they always the most ethical. Often they feel a sense of entitlement that prevents them from fully doing the work required with integrity. As true as this is now, it was equally true during ancient times regarding the potential ethical challenges of being a Priest of Israel. The practices, restrictions, and Priestly obligations to the people are detailed here in this week’s text so that the Cohanim would not fall prey to un-ethical temptations as the leaders of the people. The observance of holidays detailed in the portion and the obligations that the Cohanim are assigned here keep the intention of the Priests focused on the people rather than his own personal desires. These personal restrictions on the Cohanim help the individual Priest to restrain himself from actions that would damage his standing in the world.
It is in understanding this that we see the value of the text in modern times.
The Cohanim were the defacto leaders of the Jewish people, and these restrictions and obligations helped them stay balanced as good and ethical men. The text is an ethical code that they needed to abide by in order to retain their position as leaders. The words of the Torah reminded them that their leadership is a privilege, and that they needed to live in ways as leaders that would be examples for the rest of the people.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders, especially our spiritual leaders were forced to abide by ethical codes in order to serve the people?
No one forces someone to become a Rabbi, Cantor, Minister, or Priest. In theory it is a calling that can only be denied for so long. This week’s portion reminds those leaders that if they do choose to take up that mantle, they should strive to live in a certain way. These leaders need to be spiritual role models who will make mistakes but always try their best to be examples of spiritual living. If a Jew loves shellfish and isn’t willing to restrain himself, then he should probably not be a Rabbi. If a man has a huge libido that he needs to satisfy, then he probably shouldn’t become a Catholic priest. If someone is not willing to stand up for their faith and religious values in challenging times, then this week’s reading reminds us that they probably shouldn’t be spiritual leaders. The Torah portion gives the religious leadership tools and practices to keep balanced and working towards a consciously spiritual life of service.
If these types of conscious instructions, restrictions, and listing of obligations is important for religious service, how much more true is it for other types of leaders? Our political leaders all choose to run for office, but are they doing it for their own glory, power, money, prestige, etc. or do they run for office in order to serve the people of the nation? Are they conscious of the importance of their words and actions; the obligations they have as leaders to the people; and the restrictions that they should abide by on all levels? Do they genuinely care about being “role models” for our children, or are they more concerned with bending the laws placed upon governmental representatives in order to achieve personal financial goals, knowing that they will not actually be forced to abide by the laws that exist to theoretically prevent corruption. Are our secular leaders restrained and grateful for the blessing of their leadership?
Again, the words of this Torah portion apply to all leaders. Are athletes, performers, and business leaders conscious of their responsibility as role models, or are they narcissistic leaders who have limited personal restraints? Do the recent awards shows of the Oscars and Grammys demonstrate leadership in the arts, or do they demonstrate self involved narcissism? This Torah portion gives guidelines for appropriate and successful spiritual leadership. But the concepts of self restraint, a sense of obligation, and self imposed behavioral codes is a model for all leaders in all parts of life.
Through the conscious choice to restrain our narcissistic desires in order to be effective positive role models, we guide future generations to constantly strive to be their best. By choosing to behave in ways that are less self-involved and more geared towards service of others, the world becomes a more compassionate place for everyone. And by leaders of all sorts choosing to be constantly aware of their ethical responsibilities, the world can become a place of peace.
This text is a powerful reminder for all leaders that the ultimate form of successful leadership is through committed service to others. Or as the “rabbis” of U2 sang, “If you want to kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel”.
May all of our leaders be courageous enough to act right and righteously, restraining their egos in favor of service, and being grateful for their opportunities to serve and be role models. And may we all accept nothing less than that our leadership strives to be ethical servants for a better world.
This week’s Torah Talk is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; and to the ascension of the souls who died so tragically at his grave in Meron, may their memory be a blessing; as well as for a full healing of everyone who was injured there during the Lag B’Omer observance.
Rabbi Michael Barclay April 30, 2021 18th of Iyar, 5781 33rd Day of the Omer