Although Megilat Rut is one of the most beautiful stories regarding unadulterated chesed, it also serves as a primer on leadership. After all, its primary purpose is to establish the lineage of King David’s dynasty. Therefore we should expect to glean from it some important leadership lessons. Yet at first blush it would appear more apt to describe it as a book about followership. Rut’s noble commitment to join the Jewish people, despite all the hardships this entailed, is captured in her stirring words (1:16): “To where you will go I will go, where you will sleep I will sleep, your nation is my nation…” These words seem to constitute a declaration of what is termed “followership” more than leadership. However, a recent class trip, with my Yeshivah’s 8th grade, to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis helped clarify matters.
In the gift shop I saw a little book entitled Reef Points. The cashier explained to me that this book is the key book all midshipmen (at the naval academy students are called midshipmen, not cadets) are given upon entering the academy. It includes the principles, procedures and protocols that midshipmen must live by at all times. They literally have to memorize the book. While skimming through the book on the bus I came across the section on principles. One of the principles is “followership.” Strikingly, in a counter-intuitive way, the Navy feels it necessary to instruct its future leaders on the importance of being good followers. In the explanation to followership the book states: “There are several advantages to being a good follower even when you have been made a leader. First, you will never become a leader if you have not been a good follower. No one is going to recommend you for a leadership position if you have been poor at responding to the leadership of others. The most important reason goes back to the second principle. As a leader, you must always set the example” (p.39).
A deeper reason for the necessity of leaders to be good followers is that every leader is part of a greater whole. To be a trustworthy and credible leader one must demonstrate that he can subordinate himself to a greater good and be able to follow orders, instructions and directives. Even leaders at the top of the pyramid must be able to subordinate themselves to the greater goals of the people. Certainly, leaders in a Torah-based society must subordinate themselves to the Torah. Much of the chapter in the Torah describing the appointment of a king focuses on his adherence to the mitzvot. Rut, by exemplifying followership, taught her descendants this very important lesson.
Another attribute of leadership highlighted in both a positive and negative way in the megillah is optimism. A leader must believe that change and success are possible. This does not mean that a leader should be unrealistic and naively imagine the sun is shining on a cloudy day. Rather, a leader must see opportunities in setbacks and encourage his followers to move forward. Regrettably, the midrash describes (Rut Rabbah 1:4) how Elimelech had the means to support many people during the famine, but chose to abandon his leadership position for the plains of Moav, despite the damage this would cause to Bnei Yisrael’s economy and morale. In fact, the Gemara (Bava Batra 91b) points out that another name for Elimelech’s son Machlon was Yoash, which is related to the word despair. Elimelech’s son had to carry an ignominious name that highlighted for everyone the despair his family caused to the nation.
Contrast this behavior with Rut’s. Rut, who Chazal explain was from royal lineage, chose to abandon her comfortable lifestyle to begin anew as a pauper in a strange land. We can only imagine the boost to morale her accompanying Naomi and subsequent joining Bnei Yisrael precipitated. In addition to all her other attributes, Rut became the harbinger of hope and an exemplar of optimistic leadership at its best.
Leaders must also know how to exploit moments of inspiration and convert them into action plans. In his commentary on Megilat Rut, Rav Avigdor Nebenzal underscores the tragedy of Rut’s sister-in-law Orpah, who also had a very real inspirational moment. She too sincerely wanted to accompany Naomi. But unfortunately for Orpah this inspiration lasted for only a mere moment. Rut on the other hand was able to sustain her inspiration and turn it into a life-guiding vision. Rut, it turns out, was not only endowed with the ability of “followership” but with the ability of “follow-upship” as well.
Our visit to the Naval Academy helped me appreciate another leadership quality of Rut. One of the most amazing things about the midshipmen at the academy is that they don’t waste any time. Every part of their day is structured and purposeful. Even their downtime and athletic competitions are orchestrated to teach teamwork, resiliency and leadership. There’s no such thing as bitul zman—wasting time. Among other things this teaches the midshipmen to always be on the lookout for opportunities—especially when they are least expected. Rut had this ability as well. On her very first day in Israel Rut went searching for food for her and Naomi. Chazal delineate for us in various places the many miracles Hashem performed that day to bring Rut and Boaz together. But these miracles would have remained unused had she not had the confidence and courage to take advantage of them. She saw opportunities and possibilities and refused to waste a second. For Rut, time was too precious to squander.
Most importantly, Rut had the wherewithal to keep trying, no-matter-what. While she could not be sure she would succeed, and had no idea she was going to play a part in the establishment of Israel’s monarchy, she refused to sit idly by and be a spectator to history as it transpired around her. She sensed the hand of G-d and decided to be a player. In this sense she may have been part of President Teddy Roosevelt’s inspiration when he delivered what is perhaps his most famous speech entitled: “Man in the Arena.”
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knew victory nor defeat.
Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at email@example.com.
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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