There is a story told in the Talmud about the firing of one of Israel's greatest scholars, Rabban Gamliel II.
You may not recognize his name, but in all likelihood you've read his work. Rabban Gamliel is credited about two thousand years ago with overseeing the collection of a number of stories and rituals, forming what is known today as the Passover Haggadah.
As the Talmud recounts, Rabban Gamliel — who occupied the nation's top rabbinical position--came under fire in part for publicly embarrassing some of his colleagues.
At one point, during a heated discussion, he made the great Rabbi Joshua stand endlessly in front of the other rabbis. It was regarded as a public shaming.
The people begin to murmur.
They accuse their greatest rabbinical leader of being out of touch with reality. He rubs shoulders with the elite. He is completely removed from those he supposedly serves.
He is replaced by an eighteen year old named Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah — who opens the gates of the seminary to all who wish to learn. Hundreds take him up on his offer and on that day, the Talmud recounts, every outstanding legal matter was identified, discussed and resolved.
A reflective Rabban Gamliel decides to take a walk through the back streets, and ends up in the blacksmith shop of Rabbi Joshua, the rabbi he had shamed.
Being a rabbi isn't paying the bills. Rabbi Joshua is forced to work as a blacksmith.
“From the walls of your house, I see you are a blacksmith,” observes Rabban Gabriel.
To which the Rabbi Joshua looks up from his work bench and snips back.
“Woe unto the generation whose leader you are...for you know not the suffering of Torah scholars how they support themselves and how they are nourished.”
Rabban Gamliel appears moved by this. And from that point on, he commits himself to being more sensitive to his fellow scholars, and to others. He is ultimately reinstated.
Indeed, Judaism has always held that human leadership is flawed. Leaders are prone to become arrogant. Scripture constantly warns against leaders becoming intoxicated with their position, or losing touch with the people they serve.
One of the most significant moments in the 1992 presidential campaign occurred, when during the debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, President George Bush had to admit he did not know the cost of a gallon of milk.
The point of leaders remaining in touch with those they serve is raised in this week's Torah portion, titled Tzav (“Command Aaron and his sons”).
The Parashah provides an almost obsessive account of the technicalities of the sacrifices
offered in the desert.
It serves largely as an interesting historical account, except for one intriguing commandment directed at Aaron, the head priest, and his clan.
Before they put on their designer work clothes, the Torah commands the Kohanim, the Israelites' most esteemed class, to dress in today's equivalent of jeans and common undergarments, and clean up the mess from the day before.
The Torah instructs them to “dress in linen clothes with linen breeches ...and take up the ashes which the fire has reduced.” (Leviticus 6:3).
The great Polish scholar Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa (1767-1827), noted that public dressing down of their leaders helped ensure that the Israelite priests would never forget their link “to the ordinary people who spend their days in mundane pursuits.”
Indeed, every two years, our modern political landscape is flooded with candidates who pledge to “shake up Washington.” But soon after their election, many are swept up by their new status.
It's not completely their fault. Often, there are entrenched organizational structures which make it difficult for them --or us--to stand up, stand out and institute change.
Yet, failure to do so can produce a scenario where, like Rabban Gamliel, we forget who it is that we serve.
Moreover, within Jewish tradition, there are few sins more heinous than publicly shaming another person. Rabban Gabriel in his isolation had forgotten that value.
Often, while waiting for the train to Glen Cove after getting off the JFK/Jamaica express, I walk the streets of Jamaica. There I will sometimes encounter those of radically different religious views — including one time a group Black Hebrews who claim they are the true descendants of the Israelites.
Recently during a trip home from Canada, a person of Palestinian descent sat next to me at the Toronto airport, and while we waited to board, we discussed Middle Eastern politics from two very distinct points of view.
It gives me pause to think, as we brush over this week's detailed account of sacrifices, that sometimes we all need to walk among the blacksmiths, the street poets, and perhaps those who think differently than we do.
That was in part the message from God to our ancient leaders after they woke up after a day prayer and sacrifice.
We are reminded earlier in the Torah that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and that in God's eyes no one is better or worse than the other.
As Rabban Gamliel learned prior to his reinstatement, it's good to sometimes exit our comfort zones, and walk among the people.
Each of us, high or low, sometimes needs to be reminded as we begin our day, to spiritually
don our old jeans and breeches, and sweep up the ashes from our previous day.
Could you imagine if all of our leaders did so on a regular basis?
I have this feeling, in the words of the poet Pete Seeger, that “it could be a wonderful world.”
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman