We just read the story of Ruth, a book filled with names that invite our interpretation. Some believe Ruth’s name is related to the word for friendship, a grammatical stretch but true to her character. There is Naomi who does not want to be called “sweet” because her life was deeply embittered by loss, and Orpah whose name in the midrash is “neck” because in leaving Naomi, she turned her neck from the life she had. There is ploni-almoni, a name associated with anonymity and then there are Naomi’s sons: machlon and hilyon, loosely translated as “sickness and destruction.” Lovely. Glad I wasn’t at that baby-naming.
Scholars believe that these names were transposed on the text to reflect the feelings that readers should have upon reading this story. Maimonides helps fill in the gap by suggesting that Naomi’s sons were leaders of the generation who, during a time of famine and political unrest, turned away from those in need. They moved to Moab to seek their fortunes and evade the cries of petitioners. We appreciate their predicament. It is hard to have and be surrounded by have-nots. But that is where the work of leadership must take place. Those are the times when instead of moving away, we need leaders to lean in.
Judaism has always coupled power with responsibility, even if there is a large price to pay. The Talmud says that “authority buries the one who owns it.” Some commentaries believe that this is to be taken literally. People with power have shorter lives. Others read it as a quality of life issue. You will take on the problems of others and the burden of fixing them. If you are the head of an organization or the president of a board, pay attention to this health warning. It should say on the side of the stationary: “This leadership position could and will be hazardous to your life.”
What our health warning also needs to say is that not taking on leadership may be hazardous to the lives of others. We need good leadership. We need visionaries who can chart a course for us and great managers who can get us there operationally because without them we’re lost.
The problem is how to use authority wisely and keep humble when you have power. And here we turn to the Talmud again: “He was naked when he entered [into power], and he will be naked when he leaves it. If only his exit would be like his entrance – without sin and iniquity.” Few people enter the world with any power. Not even kings are born wearing ermine capes. And when they exit this world and their position of power, they will once again be naked but this time sin and iniquity will have to be removed. Power changes people.
Because power changes people, those with power have to keep their egos in check. When one Talmudic sage, for example, went from his home to the court to judge a legal case he would say to himself: “Of his own will, he goes to die.” In other words, I know that this is a difficult job and that I imperil my life when I do it.
Another sage did the same thing but when a crowd of people followed him, he added a few verses from Job to his self-whispers: “Though his excellency ascends to the heavens, and his head reaches the clouds, yet he shall perish forever like his own dung; they who have seen him will say: where is he?” (Job 20:6-7). When you achieve power, be wary of your downfall. With your ascent comes a possible moral descent. You may have your head in the clouds, but you are really like the basest of human waste. You are dung.
The Talmud then relates the story of Rabbi Zutra who was carried on the shoulders of his admirers on the Sabbath and on holidays. He, too, would recite something to keep him aware of authority’s perils. “For power is not forever, and does the crown endure for all generations?” (Proverbs 27:24). He reminded himself that power is only temporal and short-lived. Each of these sages was highly conscious of power and the way it can manipulate – and possibly bury - those who have it. Each identified a saying to keep the ego in check.