Shul politics are nothing new, and the hapless victim is usually the
rabbi. If he is not extra careful, the president and the synagogue board
will find fault in what he says, what he does, how he dresses, anything.
Even if the rabbi is much wiser and far more learned than his
congregation, he is not immune.
But what about the illustrious rabbis of earlier times, the great
luminaries whose immortal works infuse our lives with meaning and
direction? Did they also suffer from shul politics?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The annals of Jewish history are
replete with accounts of stellar scholars persecuted and sometimes
even driven away by their congregations. How can this be? The very
names of these people fill us with awe and admiration, and we would
travel great distances if we could but meet them and ask for their
blessings. How then is it possible that their own contemporaries treated
them so shabbily?
The key to this strange phenomenon can perhaps be found in one
of the more baffling biblical mysteries. In the early chapters of Genesis,
we read that Abraham recognized and acknowledged the Creator, and
that he carried the message of his stunning discovery to the world at
large. Many people flocked to him, pledging their loyalty to his views
and the way of life he advocated. But a brief generation, we find the
Jewish nation still limited to the small but growing family of Abraham’s
descendants. What happened to all these converts?
The commentators explain that once Abraham passed away these
people were reluctant to accept Isaac as their new leader. They
criticized him and drew unfavorable comparisons between him and his
father. Left without a leader they were willing to accept, they drifted
away from Judaism and eventually reverted to their old idolatrous ways.
What inner compulsion drives people to look at everyone around
them with critical eyes, to belittle the great and find fault with the
faultless? Why are we inclined to measure our great leaders against the
idealized standards of their predecessors?
It is our own insecurities that engender our cynical attitudes. It is
only natural for a person to seek assurances of his own importance and
self-worth. Some people, however, have such a poor self-image that
they can only feel accomplished by tearing down their superiors.
Narrowing the perceived gulf between themselves and the great people
of their time makes them feel more worthy and important. They can
accept the greatness of deceased sages or their own idolized mentors,
because they do not feel competitive towards them. But their
contemporaries are fair game.
In this week’s portion, the Torah warns against just such an
attitude. When two people become involved in a dispute, the Torah tells
us, they should bring to the matter to the judge “of those days.” What is
the significance of the phrase “of those days”? To whom else would
they bring their dispute? The Talmud explains that we are not to
measure the judges of our own times against the judges of bygone
generations. We are to accept them on their own considerable merits
and bow to their judgment.
Two friends were sitting together at the funeral of a prominent
community member. A long procession of distinguished personages and
family members delivered warm eulogies, bringing tears to many eyes.
After the funeral, the two friends walked home in a contemplative mood.
“You know something,” one of them commented. “He was a very
fine fellow. I’m going to miss him.”
“Aw, c’mon,” said his friend. “I know you’re not supposed to speak
ill of the dead, but you couldn’t stand the guy. You always had
something nasty to say about him.”
“Yeah. But let’s be honest. Whenever he was honored, I always
wished I was receiving those honors. But now that he’s passed on, I can
think about him more objectively. And you know what? He really was a
In our own lives, regrettably, we all too often see the tendency to
denigrate our leaders as a means of self-aggrandizement. Sometimes,
we are even guilty ourselves. But if we can condition ourselves to
recognize these criticisms for what they are, we will find it easier to
focus on the many positive qualities of our devoted community leaders
and rabbis. Not only will we then be able to give them their due respect,
we will also discover greater inner satisfaction and a higher sense of
self-worth for ourselves.