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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

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Image by George Tames

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In a famous photo, President John F. Kennedy is seen facing the windows of the Oval Office with his back to the camera. Slightly bent over, with his hands spread out on a credenza, he appears in deep and painful thought. The caption of the picture says it all: “The Loneliest Job.” Only the relatively few people who have been President of the United States truly understand the enormity of the job’s burden. It is for this reason presidents, despite their party affiliation, and often after leaving office, develop close bonds with one another, give the current office holder the benefit of the doubt and make themselves available to whoever may be president at the moment to help and advise.

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, in their fascinating new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (2012), describe this phenomenon. Perhaps the most poignant example of such relationships is the very warm friendship that exists between former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. In recognition of this, the younger Bush, when president, once joked that “when Clinton woke up from surgery he was surrounded by members of his family—Hillary, Chelsea and ‘my father.’”

Candidates running for office may be somewhat clueless as to what the real pressures of the job are. Eisenhower, who knew his fair share of pressure while serving as commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II explained: “The problems a president faces are soul-racking…. The nakedness of the battlefield, when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war, is comparable to the loneliness—at times—of the presidency, when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then—all alone—make his decision” (p.8). Kennedy, who more than thought himself ready for the job during his campaign and post-election preparations stated a mere ten days into his tenure, during his first State of the Union address: “No man entering upon this office could fail to be staggered upon learning—even in this brief 10 day period—the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years. Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solutions grow more difficult” (p.128).

The book is full of examples of presidents turning to their predecessors for advice, guidance and support. After the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy invited Eisenhower to Camp David to advise him in dealing with the military and to garner his support to forestall a national crisis. LBJ called upon Truman and Eisenhower in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination for support and often called on Eisenhower for guidance during the Vietnam War, their different party affiliations notwithstanding. In an almost bizarre interaction, Clinton often discussed foreign policy with Nixon and mourned the loss of his advice upon his death.

Current presidents come to realize that they cannot do it alone. While they have staff who are more than willing to offer advice, they find the need to talk with people who understand them and can guide them from a common vantage point. As their terms progress, presidents begin to view their predecessors as necessary friends instead of political opponents.

All leaders will benefit by engaging colleagues who share their challenges. We see the importance of this idea from an elaboration on a comment by Chazal, quoted by Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Torah states (26:3): “If you walk in [the path] of My statutes and you observe My commandments and perform them,” then you will be the recipients of wonderful blessings. Rashi explains that this verse exhorts us to immerse and exert ourselves in the study of Torah. Torah does not come easily. Mastering Torah requires intense and sustained effort. In fact, Pirkei Avot (chapter 6) describes the set of 48 strategies it is necessary to employ in order to successfully acquire it.

The tenth strategy instructs us to learn from and be apprenticed to rabbis. This requirement is self-evident. The twelfth strategy instructs us to teach students Torah and get involved with the passionate give and take that characterizes such endeavors. As any person who has taught a class is aware, the level of learning and preparation needed to teach without a doubt sharpens one’s skills. However, the eleventh strategy that underscores the importance of learning Torah with peers seems at first blush somewhat puzzling. While certainly a nice idea—why should learning with peers be so necessary as to be counted among the 48 strategies?

The Gemara in Ta’anit (7a) explains that just like two pieces of iron are used to sharpen each other and two pieces of wood are used to ignite one another, so too two students who learn together will sharpen each other’s learning and ignite each other’s passion for Torah. When learning alone, we all too readily accept our understanding of a topic without acknowledging our possible cognitive biases, and certainly without becoming passionate about our position. After all, nobody is challenging us. But when a person learns with a friend, then suddenly one is forced to check and recheck his positions and defend them passionately against attack. The end product is an increased devotion to Torah and truth. While much can be gained by learning with a rebbe or student, the nature of those dynamics limit the openness and passion of the intellectual attacks. But when learning with a peer, such inhibitions disappear.

The Me’am Lo’ez suggests another benefit to learning with a peer. Even a person who has a close relationship with his rebbe will refrain from asking certain questions fearing embarrassment (e.g., what if it’s a really bad question) or awkwardness. But with a peer, a person will not feel so self-conscious. The embarrassment and awkward quotients are significantly less. In light of the underlying thesis of The Presidents Club I would like to suggest an additional dimension to the benefits of learning with peers. When learning we bring our personal life experiences with us. Whether in the metaphors we use to understand a halacha, or in our emotional reactions to tangents which come up when learning, it is most helpful when the person we are learning with understands us and our frame of reference. Only a peer – a person who is at the same stage of life as we are and experiences the same sorts of things we experience

- is in a position to effectively argue with us or guide and advise us when the need arises. It is for this reason that the formulation of this strategy is called in Hebrew “dikduk chaveirim”— encouraging us to be particular and nuanced in the choosing of peers to study with.

It is obvious that leaders need mentors to teach and advise them. It is also very helpful to have students of leadership at the same time. Students certainly force a person to think things through when they are in the advisor’s seat. But it is perhaps most important to have good peers—people who can be objective at the moment but understand exactly what you are going through. In this sense all leaders need their own respective clubs.

The day Kennedy found out about the missiles in Cuba was indeed a lonely day. The fate of the world was on his shoulders and he needed to reach out to the people who truly understood this pressure to give him advice. He is reported to have recited the following poem that day—a poem which captures the loneliness of the job.

Bullfight critics row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza de toros
But only one is there who knows
And he is the one who fights the bull
                                                                         (p.151).

Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.

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About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.


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