It was close to thirty years ago when I first faced an almost unbearable emotional pivot as a rabbi. A legacy family in our congregation had scheduled a naming ceremony for the first child of the next generation for late Sunday morning. And just a few days before, a brilliant, beloved and very young father died suddenly, leaving behind a devastated wife, two little children and a stunned community.
I can still recall the feelings as I walked from the exquisite joy of the celebration to the crushing sorrow of the funeral. Perhaps I walked fifty steps. My insides were in turmoil; the tragedy of the death could not dampen the joy of the birth, and the giddiness of the celebration could not mitigate the catastrophic loss.
I have had those experiences since. I can see now how the need to be fully present for others in each circumstance took its toll on my own inner life. But, hey – that’s the role of the rabbi. And, after all, though I am no less entitled to my feelings than anyone else, neither that naming nor that funeral had anything to do with my feelings. There were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles awash in the miracle of life, and there were parents, children, siblings and a spouse for whom normal would never again be normal. They gathered within earshot of each other, but the tears they shed were from different wells. My role (I can’t really call it a job) was to take care of them.
Those pivots certainly did not happen daily, and rarely were they between such extremes. The space around them was filled with responsibilities of my position. There were worship services to conduct, lessons to prepare and teach, meetings to attend, programs to run, staff with whom to collaborate. A hundred small decisions had to be made for every large judgment call. The long-term health of our community depended on the aggregated actions of the people with whom I worked, but the defining moments were the ones in which my voice, my words helped people make sense of the extraordinary of their lives.
Other types of clergy know how I feel. School principals and teachers likewise mark their days by the regularity of the school bell and the punctuation of the unexpected.
But nobody knows this better than people in public office.
If the polls are right, you probably look at that last statement with a jaundiced eye. Recent rhetoric has been focused on the unreliability of “politicians” to do their jobs and uphold our values. An incredible amount of energy has been put into denigrating the motives of anyone who has spent time in public service – legislators, jurists, responders, military leaders. There is a candidate in the heartland of America whose campaign ads show him firing automatic weapons and pledging to “take dead aim” at politics as usual. And at least one candidate in this bizarre election year has sustained a campaign that ignores policy in favor of personal insults. The day-to-day aspects of the job are indeed critical.
But I want you to consider what you need from the people who represent you.
Consider the judge who was outraged at the treatment received by an admitted shoplifter: she was denied pants for her trip from the jail to the courthouse. The judge fined her for the crime, but apologized to her and reprimanded the inhumanity of those who mistreated her.
Consider the police officer who responded to the call about teenagers disrupting a quiet neighborhood with a raucous basketball game. He called for backup. The backup was Shaquille O’Neill.
Consider the presidential nominee who looked at the devastation of Hurricane Gustav and decided human suffering needed more attention than his campaign just as his nominating convention was set to convene.
Consider the president who participated in the silliness of a correspondents’ dinner that interrupted the deadly seriousness of covering the events of the day. The event of his day was a high-risk operation to bring a murderous terrorist to his end. It wasn’t mentioned at all during the frivolities.
Those are the pivots a leader must be able to make. To be a leader means to put aside the self-indulgent considerations to which everyone else is entitled. The leader must not turn away from the challenge. The leader must turn into it.
When everyone else averts their eyes, the leader looks directly. When everyone else hands off to the next guy, the leader takes hold. When everyone else asks, “what about me,” the leader asks instead, “what about you; what do you need; how can I help.”
I have had the unlikely privilege to meet many people in public service -- legislators, jurists, responders, military leaders. They are far from perfect, but the better they are at their mission, the more likely they are to acknowledge their flaws. Conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic, faithful to a religion or devoutly secular, they accept that the needs of the people supersede their own. They have been entrusted with authority and sometimes with power and they want to use it well. They fall short and they see others fall short. The good ones respond with compassion. The selfish ones respond with attacks.
As I write this, Phoenix, Arizona is washing away. Southern California is burning again. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons have fled from wars in which they have no stake. African American parents are pleading with their children not to act like normal teenagers. Jews are feeling betrayed by old allies. Muslims and Hispanics are concerned about keeping their families intact.
Leaders will pivot into the problems.
Others will worry about their own injured feelings.
Thanks to A.M.