Two Paradigms

Who is the true spiritual leader? Is it the venerable sage who sits alone, nose buried in an ancient tome, or the fellow on the streets, who guides the perplexed and who mentors seeking souls? Is it the scholar whose mind is immersed in ancient wisdoms, or the one who provides for the needy and counsels the poor? Is it the pious rabbi whose prayer and meditation melts the heart, or the cheerful soul whose unbounded joy finds expression in spontaneous song and dance?

Is it the scholar? Is it the pious rabbi?

This is an age-old debate that continues to rage in homes and halls across ethnic lines. Jews also debated this question, each camp insisting that its path is correct. Some believe that true worship of G‑d is found in seclusion, study and meditative prayer. Others maintain that G‑d is found among His people, on their streets and in their homes.1

The first model of leader, who is cloistered from the masses, is free to devote time to higher learning and worship. This leader can become a true model for the world to follow and admire. The downside is that this leader is divorced from the people, and doesn’t truly understand their needs. How can leaders lead without knowing those they are meant to lead?

The second model of leader is engaged, and truly knows the flock, relating to their concerns and understanding their needs. The engaged leader can address the masses on their level and speak to them in their language. On the flip side, such leaders are exposed to outside influences, and run the risk of compromising their own spiritual pursuit, personal scholarship, piety, or even integrity.

Each model is valid in its own way, but the only way to determine the original Jewish model is to return to the beginning and seek our answer with Abraham, the father figure of the Jewish people.

Looking to Abraham, however, leads to more confusion than clarity. When reviewing Abraham’s story, we learn that he encompassed both models—and might even have been the origin of the entire debate.

Name Change

Abraham’s original name was Abram. Just before appointing him patriarch of our nation, G‑d changed his name to Abraham. Abram is an amalgam of two Hebrew words: av, which means “father,” and ram, which means “exalted.” By adding the Hebrew letter hei to the middle of Abraham’s name, G‑d taught Abraham the proper function of a leader.2

The Torah tells us that the letter hei represents the Hebrew words hamon goyim, “multitudes of nations.” G‑d seemed to be saying: “If you want to be a patriarch, you cannot seclude yourself in the ivory tower and divorce yourself from the multitudes. You have to stop being an Abram, a father exalted and aloof from his children, and be an Abraham, one who mingles with the multitudes.”

He fed the hungry and housed the poor, taught the students and educated the masses.

Indeed, a brief review of Abraham’s lifestyle will show that he was an outgoing teacher rather than a reclusive scholar. Abraham sparked a revolutionary religious movement that transformed ancient Mesopotamia. Before Abraham, Mesopotamia was a stronghold of idolatry and pagan worship. Abraham organized mass lectures and held public debates. He wrote more than four hundred manuscripts outlining his arguments for monotheism. He was an activist on every level. He fed the hungry and housed the poor, taught the students and educated the masses.

He was not a reclusive academic, content with his scholarly tomes. He was a man driven to share his message. He was a firebrand who kindled a flame. In every respect, Abraham was a man of the people.

At first glance it would appear that G‑d endorsed Abraham’s leadership style. Your name, G‑d seemed to be saying, doesn’t fit your character. I will change your name to better reflect your style, for this is the form of leadership I desire for my children.

Yet upon closer scrutiny, we find this explanation overly simplistic. If G‑d wanted to convey a message of activism over personal piety, He would have changed Abraham’s name to something like Ami-el, which means “my nation is G‑dly,” or Betoch-Ami, which means “among my nation.”

Instead G‑d preserved Abraham’s original name in its entirety, and merely added the letter hei.

It appears that G‑d’s message to Abraham was that either approach can work: You can be an exalted father, if this is your particular leadership style or if you perceive it as the appropriate approach for your community, but don’t categorically reject the other model. Being a father who is involved with the multitudes is also a valid approach. If this is your leadership style, or if you consider this an appropriate approach for your time and place, you may feel free to adopt it.

If we were seeking a resolution to the age-old debate, we certainly don’t find it in Abraham’s name. If anything, the name implies that both approaches are valid. In true Jewish fashion, the debate continues . . .

Scholar on the Street

While it is true that both approaches are valid and that each leader must choose according to his or her circumstances, I believe the optimal approach can indeed be found in Abraham’s combined name.

In true Jewish fashion, the debate continues . . .

Leaving the study hall and sanctuary is a spiritual risk only if the world outside represents a compromise in holiness. One who can bring the learning and intensity of the sanctuary to the greater outdoors need not make this choice. Such leaders can thrive even outside.

We need not choose between heightened piety in isolation on the inside and compromised connection with G‑d on the outside. We can do both. So long as Abraham busies himself with mentoring, guiding and teaching Torah to the masses, he would be immune to the influences of the outside. On the contrary, he would be so busy lifting others up that he could not be dragged down.3

In this way, it is quite possible to be an Abra(ha)m: A father, exalted on the highest levels, among the multitudes. To do that, we must tap into the wellspring of spiritual energy that G‑d invested into Abraham’s soul, and through Abraham into each of us.

Can we emerge from our protective spiritual cocoons without compromising our piety and integrity? The answer is yes, but only if we bring our Torah and intense spiritual connection along.4