Earlier this week I found myself at the Kotel sometime after 10 PM. I hadn't been there at night for quite a while, and found myself surprised by the sheer number of people who were there. In the midst of all the activity, the gates to the plaza suddenly entered and a car came speeding through, screeching to a halt as it reached the end of the plaza (perhaps 250 feet). Curious to see who the VIP being rushed in was I peered through the crowds, but could see nothing more than four hasidim who jumped out of the small car and rushed off.
Three minutes later the gates opened again, and this time it was a van which came speeding through the plaza. It, too, screeched to a halt at the other end, and when the doors opened there were a large number of hasidim who emerged, togsther with their Rebbe, the Admor. (I will not identify the particular sect.) He was a man in his late 50's, finely dressed with a distinguished appearance.
Within minutes, hundreds of his hasidim, from teens to middle-aged men, flocked to his side, and escorted him inside the "tunnel", where they gathered for Maariv. The dedication, devotion and commitment they showed toward their Rebbe was admirable, perhaps even inspiring. But it was exactly that dedication that caused me to wonder.
I'm sure that getting the Rebbe to Maariv on time was important. Was it important enough to speed through a crowded plaza, endangring the dozens, if not hundreds or people who were there? Was the Rebbe not aware of the road carnage in Israel, which claims more victims than all the wars and terrorism? I am sure that one word from the Rebbe to have his hasdim drive more responsibly would have immediate impact, ad perhaps sent an important message to them all about road safety.
I am similarly puzzled why the Rebbe, and his colleagues (both in the hasidic and the Yeshiva worlds), hesitate to issue an outright, unambiguous ban on smoking. If their followers hang onto their every word - from voting preferences to Kashrut supervisions to public demonstrations - surely they would adhere to an edict declaring cigarettes to be as forbidden (or more so!) than pork (or non-halav Yisrael milk or products with only the supervision of the Israeli Rabbinate).
Cynicism aside, I began to reflect on all of our leadership models, including the educational ones. It is very flattering to have students who become personal adherents. They hang onto every word, send gifts for the holidays, call you for years afterward, invite you to their weddings, and remind you of how important an influence you were on their lives. Such relationships come with at least three significant dangers.
First, there is a profound responsibility the teacher bears. If the students follow the teacher so carefully, even mundane things the teacher never intended to become educational lessons suddenly take on gravitas. The teacher must watch his/her every move.
Second, such attachments threaten the independence and personal development of the students. The exaggerated attachments prevent the students from truly coming into their own and becoming self-secure adults.
Third, these types of relationships easily lend themselves to abuse. We have been flooded the past few years with numerous incidents, both in Israel and the US, of such abuse - by teachers, Rabbis, etc. Multiple organizations have been established to deal with these, and some of the leaders have been criminally prosecuted. The very teacher-student relationships which are so critical to the healthy growth can metastasize into ugly distortions of themselves.
Leaders with real followers have profound responsibilities, both for what they say and do as well as for what they refrain from saying or doing. Responsibilty for the sins of omission is as great as for the sins of commission.