When Leaders Don’t Act Like Leaders

This week, I am infuriated by the actions of three leaders: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump and the leaders of the “Dyke March” in Chicago. Mr. Netanyahu bowed to his most right-wing supporters on two issues: reneging on the agreement to create an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and he also gave his backing to a return to Orthodox control over conversions.  As for Mr. Trump, there are so many things about him at which I am piqued. My disquiet has often stemmed from the base, acidic and venomous manner in which he expresses himself, but this week, his tweet about the hosts of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC was absolutely vicious. He was especially animalisticly ferocious toward the female host of the program, Mika Brzezinski. He tweeted: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe [Scarborough], came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” As for the organizer/leaders of the Dyke March in Chicago, what they did is at first glance a misunderstanding but then it becomes clear that those leader/organizers knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were doing when they assumed that one of the marchers, who wished to proclaim both being a lesbian and being a Jew, marched with a rainbow flag (for gay pride) with a Star of David superimposed on the rainbow colors. She was given the choice of rolling up her flag or leaving the march. She was told that the star was a symbol of the State of Israel, therefore a symbol of oppression and as such was a “trigger” that made others “feel unsafe”.

Years ago, I heard a wonderful Israeli whom I admire, Yitzchak Frankenthal, who turned his grief over his son, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists, into activism by becoming a voice for peace, use a talmudic phrase to describe the Israeli government’s attitude toward making peace. The phrase is “your leaders act like dogs”. The phrase took me aback until I understood it’s context. This section of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) paints of picture of the generation preceding the coming of the Messiah as absolutely corrupt. “It has been taught: R. Nehorai said: in the generation when Messiah comes, young men will insult the old, and old men will stand before the young [to give them honor]; daughters will rise up against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. The people shall be dog-faced, and a son will not be abashed in his father’s presence.” Mr. Frankenthal took his interpretation of the “people shall be dog-faced” from Rabbi Yisroel Salanter who “explains that a dog always runs in front of its master, almost to the point where it appears as if the dog is leading and its master is following after it and obeying its directions. The truth is, however, that the master is going where he wants to go, and the dog is constantly looking behind to see where its master is headed. If he notices that his master is turning, the dog quickly adjusts and turns to run in front of where the master is going. This scenario will describe the people of the generation of the Moshiach [Messiah]. In previous generations, the leaders determined where and what the people would do, and the community followed behind faithfully. At the time of Moshiach, however, the people will run ahead and appear to direct their own leaders, who will be following behind.”

And so it was with these three scenarios, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump and the organizers of the Dyke March, all leaders who were entrusted with guiding their constituencies to the highest moral ground. Instead, they have entrenched their countries and communities deeper into misogyny, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, anti-Semitism, reneging on promises, and cycles of punishment and vengeance that ultimately cause societies to tailspin out of control. Of course, if we follow Rabbi Salanter’s thoughts, this might means that things are getting so bad that the coming of the Messiah is imminent. I don’t believe in that kind of Messiah. I believe in the kind put forth by my colleague Rabbi Robert Levine, who’s book, entitled, “There is No Messiah – and You’re It” pretty much articulates my view. There’s no one or nothing to wait for. There’s no one or nothing going to rescue us. If we’re going to be more tolerant, it’s up to us. If we’re going to stop scapegoating, it’s up to us. If the cycle of hurt and vengeance is going to stop, it’s up to us. If we’re going to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless, it’s up to us. Should we still keep trying to elect leaders who will help us with this work? Of course, we should. In the meantime, let’s get to work.