Not just a job
At risk of overgeneralizing, there are two types of communal leaders: Those that are in it for themselves and those that are in it for the benefit of their community. Both can be effective to some degree, but the latter—the leader who sets him or herself aside and puts the community first—is going to accomplish far greater things than the former, who views the position as a job that is left behind in the office after a day’s work.
People get into community service for a variety of reasons, and being selfish about it is not always a bad thing. Someone willing to put effort into enhancing communal life is certainly to be commended; even someone who views their current job as a stepping stone to a higher and better paying position, is also doing good work, despite their motives.
Nevertheless, for the community to truly benefit from their leaders’ devotion, the leaders need to set themselves aside and not even for a moment consider their own comforts or career advancement. The job should be all about the community.
This is something that Pharaoh, king of Egypt, didn’t understand. When Moses and Aaron approached him with a message from G-d to free the Jewish people from bondage, Pharaoh’s response was, “Why do you care? You guys aren’t enslaved like most of the Jews.”
He was right, Moses and Aaron were Levites, the one tribe that was not enslaved and subject to the forced labor their brethren were. The entire tribe was considered Torah scholars, and even the Egyptians recognized the need for a nation to have teachers and scholars. So they were exempt from the back-breaking labor that was synonymous with the Egyptian exile. Pharaoh couldn’t understand why these two individuals, who could easily have stayed home with their books and their families, were putting up a fight on behalf of the rest of the Jews.
And that’s where his mistake was. Misjudging the devotion of Moses and Aaron was the beginning of his downfall. As king, he assumed that everyone was in it for the same reasons he was—as a self-serving and self-promoting pedestal. He thought he was dealing with people that were on his level, and by the time he realized that their devotion to their community infinitely outweighed his, it was too late for him.
He wasn’t entirely wrong, in fact it is logical to assume that leaders care about their personal benefit too; we’re all human after all. But his mistake was to confuse the Jewish people with anyone else. Despite being exiled for two centuries at the time, the Jewish spirit never waned and that was in no small part thanks to the devotion of their leaders.
With Moses and Aaron at the helm, the duration of the exile—which was originally supposed to last 400 hundred years—was cut nearly in half. Their unwillingness to focus only on themselves is what brought out the true Jewish spirit, and it is something that antisemites throughout history have never been able to grasp: We are all in this together, top to bottom, and if one Jewish person is hurting, we are all in pain.
And when we have leaders—and in a sense every Jew can be a leader—who make their focus the collective Jewish community rather than their own shortsighted personal advantage, that’s when the haters around the world are really thrown for a loop.