Leaders face all sorts of challenges, but perhaps nothing is more frustrating than attacks against a position or project which the leader knows, in his heart, is the right thing to do. While Victor Hugo’s aphorism, describing how “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” may very well prove true in the long-run, it doesn’t lessen the sting of the attacks while trying to convert that idea into reality. But part of leadership is the ability to persevere no matter what.
Abraham Lincoln, in his effort to free the slaves, was motivated by his belief that this was likely the most important thing he would ever do. Although he had to take incremental and at times mere baby steps he moved ever so gradually forward. From the Emancipation Proclamation’s liberating slaves in states still in rebellion as a military necessity in 1863, to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which actually freed the slaves forever, Lincoln never lost sight of the goal. Far from being discouraged by the attacks on his Emancipation Proclamation from all sides,Lincoln actually drew strength. He knew he was making history and changing the world – and change always has its opponents.
Winston Churchill during the 1930s was far from a popular figure. He was out of the government and his warnings about the dangers of Hitler and the Nazis were viewed as war mongering. Despite the public’s negative response, Churchill never silenced himself and refused to soften his warnings. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, claiming he had achieved “peace in our time,” Churchill described in painful eloquence how in fact Hitler “instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.” Far from deterring Churchill, the public outcry against him actually strengthened his resolve—a resolve that would be sorely needed as he led Great Britain throughout World War II.
Leaders must be able to differentiate between opposition which is indicative of the weaknesses of an idea or project and opposition which is a product of the old guard and of people who are afraid of change or in denial of reality. However, in one form or another leaders will always face opposition. Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin pointed this out in a colorful insight on this week’s parsha. The midrash comments that when construction of the mishkan was complete, Moshe was not able to account for a small amount of the funds and material collected. People began to accuse him of embezzlement. To disprove their accusation Moshe embarked on a full audit, ultimately accounting for every penny spent. The original unaccounted funds had in fact been used for a small item on the outer structure.
Rav Shapiro finds it quiet perplexing that when Bnei Yisrael donated money to build the golden calf all they got was a very small calf. This was despite a very successful fundraising campaign. Yet nobody questioned where all the money went. However, when it came to the building of the Mishkan, despite Bnei Yisrael seeing their donations being used for a large edifice, they nonetheless focused on an unaccounted, miniscule amount of money and demanded a complete audit. Rav Shapiro explained that this is part of the human condition. When it comes to frivolous things people never question the expenditure of funds. But when it comes to holy things people want an exact accounting.
However, I don’t believe that Rav Shapiro meant his comment in a discouraging way. If we compare this insight to an insight he said in reference to Akeidat Yitzchak we will see that, in fact, Rav Shapiro meant his comment in an encouraging manner.
Upon being commanded to desist from sacrificing his son, Avraham scanned the area for an alternate sacrifice. When he saw a ram stuck in the bushes he immediately took it. Rav Shapiro wonders what made Avraham so sure that the ram was a suitable sacrifice. After all, the Midrash describes how throughout his journey to the Akeidah the Satan attempted to undermine Avraham. What convinced Avraham that the ram was not just another attempt by the Satan to cause him to fail in his proper worship of G-d? Rav Shapiro says it was the fact that the ram was stuck in the bushes. When the Satan does something it proceeds effortlessly. When Avraham saw the ram stuck he realized it was a good and holy thing because good and holy things encounter friction as a matter of course.
In light of this explanation I believe Rav Shapiro is teaching all people involved in holy matters not to be discouraged by petty opposition. Rather, they should interpret that opposition as a sign that what they are involved in is worthwhile. For if it weren’t there would be minimal friction. However, it is important to point out that leaders must be honest with themselves. First, they must take any criticism they receive into account. Just because criticism and opposition don’t always come from pure and sincere sources does not mean that they are not correct. When one is involved in holy and significant endeavors he must be ever so vigilant in every detail. Additionally, before a leader interprets opposition as a sign of worthiness, he must question himself numerous times to ensure that his motivations are pure and that he is pursuing his position for the right reasons. However, the fundamental argument of this article is that opposition in and of itself should not be viewed as an irritant, but rather as the impetus to improve one’s position and project, and at times as a sign that one is onto something good.
 The Abolitionists viewed it as too little and the strict Unionists viewed it as an attempt to transform the purpose of the war.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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