With the recent inauguration of an American president, another Israeli election, and heated issues about gun control against the background of another shooting on a college campus, we are all aware that leadership is being sorely tested and desperately needed.
At the same time, we understand the critical and symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. As the Midrash in Deuteronomy Rabba 1:10 says, “A community is too heavy to carry alone.” We all carry it together.
In a beautiful poster produced for the “Visions and Voices” project of the Jewish nonprofit PJ Library, Danny Gordis offered his interpretation of the above Midrash. He writes of the power of solitary spiritual experiences that offer us much in the way of peace and growth but are limiting: “Alone, we may feel a special calm, but there is no one to challenge us, to urge us to further exploration or commitment. Alone, we have no one to model for us genuine courage, deeper commitment, engagement with people we hadn’t thought to include in our lives.” When we act together, God dwells in our midst.
This notion of the interconnectivity and interdependence of human beings in community is inspiring, but perhaps does not capture some of the pain of the Midrashic sentiment. We need each other, but no one person can carry the load. We all know leaders who shoulder an unfair burden of responsibility. They often initiate, advocate, and sign-on for tasks that others avoid. The phone rings, and they actually answer it. We move them from organization to organization because they are willing and committed. But, too often, they lead without sufficient help. This reading highlights the word “alone.”
Since we are thick in the Moses narratives in our Torah cycle, we can use insights from Exodus to help us understand another word in the Midrash: heavy.
When I read this, I thought instantly of another Midrash that has always moved me and sometimes moved me to tears. When Moses received the Ten Commandments in stone, how did he carry them and why, later, did he throw them? They were so heavy. They were so holy.
Moses lifted them with ease, with the adrenalin of excitement and passion. But when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, the tablets suddenly felt so heavy. They were heavy before, but driven by ambition and mission, he did not realize how heavy they truly were. He did not throw them. He dropped them in heartbreak when the people let him down. He suddenly became aware of just how heavy they were and just how tired he was.
The poet and artist, Brian Andreas, in his book Traveling Light, has a picture of a creature holding a pile of objects. Next to the drawing are the following words: “This is a giant block of whatever is most difficult for you to carry & trust me on this, you’ll carry it more times than you can count until you decide that’s exactly what you want to do most & then it won’t weigh a thing anymore.”
What Andreas points out in his little drawing/saying is that the very things which feel like a burden can become lighter for us when we decide we want to carry them. What the Midrash points out is that the very things that feel light to us can become a burden in the absence of love or in the presence of disappointment. All that we love—our families, our jobs, our volunteer commitments—all can become burdens when we feel their heaviness: taking care of children, caring for elderly parents, supporting employees who are struggling, being there for friends in need.
But we can also decide to lighten the load by changing our perspective and loving the burden until it no longer weighs a thing.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits.