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Beyond Authority: The Art of Empowering Others

Written by שי טחן, 20/5/2024


Beyond Authority: The Art of Empowering Others

Rabbi Shay Tahan 

At a rabbinical convention attended by esteemed scholars from previous generations, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman repeatedly asked the Chazon Ish to share words of Torah. Despite the insistence, the Chazon Ish declined. Rabbi Wasserman, believing he wasn't violating the prohibition of "you shall not rule ruthlessly over the other," persisted in his requests. When he assured the Chazon Ish that his request wasn't violating this prohibition, the Chazon Ish expressed uncertainty, prompting Rabbi Wasserman to immediately cease his entreaties and seek forgiveness (story told by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch שו״ת תשובות והנהגות ח״א).

There is a mitzva mentioned in our parasha (Behar) which, at first reading, may seem irrelevant in our time. However, further learning will show that it is very relevant to each one of us and there is much to be learned from it. The pasuk says: “No one shall rule ruthlessly over the other" (ויקרא כה, מו), meaning we should not rule over the slave with rigor.

Chazal explain that this mitzvah pertains to how a slave owner should treat his Jewish slave. They write that he should not force him to do useless work with the sole purpose of vexing him. For example, do not say to him, “Warm me this cup of drink" when this is unnecessary; nor, “Hoe beneath this vine tree until I come back,” without specifying when you will return.

Now, since there is no slavery today, it seems like this is a mitzva from the past which isn’t relevant anymore.

Let's delve into the explanation of Rabbenu Yonah and appreciate the depth of the Torah, contrasting it with our accustomed superficial learning. Rabbenu Yonah writes(שערי תשובה פרק ג אות ס) : “[The pasuk in the Torah says:] “But as for your brothers of the Children of Israel, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other” - A man may not subjugate his fellow. If others fear him or are embarrassed to disobey his word, he should not command them to do anything at all, except from their own will and for their benefit—even to heat up a jug of water or run an errand to the town square to buy as little as a loaf of bread. However, it is permitted to command anything he wants to a person who does not behave properly”.

According to the words of Rabbeinu Yonah, one violates this prohibition merely by asking another to do something for him if the other person is reluctant to refuse due to fear, embarrassment, or any other reason. For example, if you've done someone a favor and now you want to ask him for a favor in return, knowing he won't be able to say no even if it's hard for him because he feels obligated to return the favor. What happens then is something interesting that needs to be explained. When one loses his ability to refuse for any reason, he is likened to a slave who doesn't have the ability to refuse his master's command.





Rabbenu Yona's interpretation underscores the essence of compassionate leadership, emphasizing the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. He cautions against using authority to coerce or intimidate, instead advocating for a leadership style rooted in empathy and mutual benefit. By empowering others to act according to their own will and for their own welfare, true leadership fosters a sense of autonomy and cooperation. However, Rabbenu Yona also acknowledges the necessity of holding individuals accountable for their actions, recognizing that proper behavior is essential for a harmonious community.


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