Passover’s iconic text, the haggadah, invites us to think seriously about leadership. The qualities that make good leaders, the pitfalls that can break them, the urgency to develop new leadership and the reality that it takes time and patience to do so, the imperative for all of us to be leaders in our own way – it’s all neatly documented and presented for discussion at the seder. You might even say that’s the whole point.
The haggadah considers two forms of leadership: communal and personal. The former reveals itself in the text’s essence, which is an open invitation to share history and tradition, to read and study together. By its very structure, the haggadah welcomes all into the conversation and implies that everyone has a leadership role to play.
It also reminds us that great leadership need not be seen to be felt. Moses, the greatest of Jewish leaders, isn’t directly mentioned in the haggadah. That’s a fitting reminder that leaders should always be humble. And yet, more than anyone, Moses embodies the Exodus story. His path to leadership personifies the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom. Our story is his story – another lesson in leadership.
There’s more. The haggadah quotes the sage Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah admitting that, though he surely tried, he had never been able to quite understand the biblical commandment to relate the Exodus story at nighttime. Rabbi Elazar was no pushover – as a teenager, he was installed atop the Sanhedrin, at which point, overnight, his hair turned grey and he grew a flowing beard (this is one possible explanation of his statement in the haggadah, “I am like a 70-year-old man”). But despite his evident talent, he was unable to find an answer until the scholar Ben Zoma provided him with one. The path to leadership can emerge suddenly or it can evolve over decades, and sometimes it can be both.
That’s a complicated point, to be sure – one that young kids might not quite fully grasp. Fortunately, the haggadah is seriously concerned with the next generation of leaders, too. Surely that’s why the Four Questions has become such a highlight. It challenges the quietest voices among us to pipe up – and it’s worth reminding the adults in the room that that’s no small feat. Finding one’s voice requires practice and nerves of steel.
But then you’ve got to be brave if you want to be a leader. This Passover, I know I’ll be thinking a lot about my grandmother, who passed away a few months ago, and the two other grandparents with whom I was fortunate to spend many seders. They were Holocaust survivors, but found the strength to be leaders, each in their own way, in the wake of tragedy. If you are lucky enough to spend a seder with seniors, honour them, marvel at their journeys and make sure the kids do as well. Great leaders, unfortunately, don’t live forever.
When you finish your seder, take a well-deserved rest. (If you fulfilled the requirement to drink four cups of wine, best to drink a cup of water on the way to bed.) You’re going to need it. As the haggadah reminds us every year, when it comes to leadership, we are all always on call.