Sixty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. sat in prison drafting what would become one of America’s most treasured literary and moral documents. While King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail addressed the scourge of racism and discrimination, its ostensible audience was neither Alabama Governor George Wallace, nor any of the obvious perpetrators of segregationist policy. The prompt was an earlier letter printed in the Birmingham newspaper signed by white clergymen — ministers, priests, bishops and a rabbi — self-described racial moderates who had critiqued King for what they described as his extreme methods of protest.
King took his clerical colleagues to task for their do-nothing leadership, having “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice …” It was not only their indifference to racism that inflamed King, but that these leaders failed to represent the values they preached and that their clerical calling demanded they embody.
The anniversary of King’s letter falls in the midst of the sefirah, the counting of the 49 days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. By counting these seven weeks between the liberation from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, we are reminded of the connection between Passover’s freedom and the gift of God’s Torah. But despite the joyous biblical backdrop, our sages understood these weeks as a time for sober reflection. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records that it was during these weeks that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died by plague. In many Jewish communities, weddings are not performed and certain aspects of mourning, like not shaving, are observed in this period.
Why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished as they were? The Talmud states only lo nahagu kavod zeh bazeh — they did not treat each other with respect. Over time, subsequent commentators have read into the Talmud’s terse language a more fatal flaw. Akiva was the greatest sage of his day, and his students were expected to be living exemplars of Torah. But despite their stature, they failed to model behavior for others to emulate. For Akiva’s students, it was the dissonance between what they said and what they did — between the talk they talked and the walk they walked — that brought on their catastrophic punishment. The gravity of their moral failings was compounded due to it falling precisely during the very weeks given over to affirming the law.
There are, to be sure, numerous ways to measure a life of leadership, but at the core truly great leadership requires a correspondence between an individual’s inner and outer lives. As the Talmud teaches, of the three types of people whom God hates, the first is echad b’peh v’echad b’lev, a person who says one thing and does another.
This litmus test helps us further understand the enigmatic and seemingly unjustified death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, in this week’s Torah portion. None of the reasons offered by the rabbis — arrogance, disrespect of Moses and Aaron, a licentious lifestyle — fully explains their sudden demise. Perhaps their fatal misstep was not any one misdeed, but rather that they had forgotten that their position called on them to represent not just themselves, but also something much bigger. As God states following their deaths, “Through those near to me. I will be made holy.” (Leviticus 10:3). In fulfilling their priestly duties, Nadav and Avihu had the opportunity to elevate God’s presence in the community. Their failure to do so reflected poorly not only on them, but on God — thus their punishment.
At all times, but especially in times of crisis, the behavior of leaders sets the culture of the people and institutions they lead. It is not enough to simply wax eloquent about the sort of public behavior we wish to see. Leaders must act in accord with their ideals, thus prompting the same consistency in others. No matter what our station in life, we can all lead by example — our smallest gestures sometimes speaking the greatest volumes. Each of us has both the opportunity and obligation to be our best selves, for ourselves and for others to follow.
Some people lead revolutions, some lead institutions and some are just trying their best to make it through the day. But we can all live by a consistency of action — in the big things and little things. “We are,” wrote Aristotle, “what we repeatedly do.” It is not enough to merely talk the talk, we need to walk the walk, embodying the ideas we profess to hold dear – the examples of our lives inspiring others towards the shared work of mending a world in desperate need of repair.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Apr. 13, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.