And yet, one of the most important skills to possess as a leader is the ability to apologize. One of my most important rabbinic mentors, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, gave me a critical piece of advice before I was ordained: "When someone says you've hurt them, apologize. No ifs, ands, or buts. Just say you are sorry. Then begin the healing process." It is a critical part of leadership, and spiritual leadership in particular, to put the needs of those you serve first. For their sake, for the sake of your community, and in order to nurture the faith of those you serve. When a religious leader cannot or will not apologize for the way in which they have hurt others -- intentionally or unintentionally -- it impacts their followers' faith and connection to community. Religious and moral leaders are not only individuals in the world, but representatives of a much larger system of values, connections, and identities. This role is a heavy burden on those who assume leadership, but it is part of the responsibility of those who exercise true leadership.
In Parashat Vayeshev, we encounter a rare moment when Judah, one of the strongest men in the community, publicly apologizes to Tamar, one of the weakest women in society. She is a widow many times over with no children and no prospects for a future husband. She forces Judah's hand through an intricate deception in order to force him to live up to his responsibilities for levirate marriage. When he is confronted with the error of his ways, he does something rare and sacred: He announces publicly:
ויכר יהודה ויאמר צדקה ממני כי־על־כן לא־נתתיה לשלה בני ולא־יסף עוד לדעתה
Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (Genesis 38:26)
The children borne of Judah and Tamar -- Peretz and Zerach -- become part of the Davidic, Messianic line. Their names mean "the one who burst forth," and "shining light." They are both righteous, and Judah's portion of the Land of Israel is never invaded by foreign armies. Why? I think we can postulate that even though they were conceived in a way that was somewhat tragic and non-traditional, they were borne in the context of justice and clarity. They were born in a context where their father respected Truth and decency enough to admit wrong doing, despite the political implications and the threats to his social standing.
Orot Tzadikim writes the following words about truthfulness, rebuke, and a life well lived. He begins with words about how to deal with undeserved credit, and then ends with the righteous person's approach to reproach:
And, of course, if people credit him with good deeds he did not do, he should not rejoice at this but on the contrary feel great pain in his heart that he should have gotten credit for something he did not do. Also, in the case where somebody told evil tales concerning him — if these are true — he should not seek to twist the truth and thus clear himself, but do as Judah who said: "She is more in the right than I" (Gen. 38:26). And he should not try to contradict the man that told these tales, nor should he hate him because he revealed the matter, but he should bow humbly before the Creator, Blessed be He, that he has revealed a little of much that could have been revealed, in order to rebuke him and correct him that he might return to God.
One who lives a holy life -- one who is fit for leadership -- welcomes critique as an opportunity to better serve God and God's children. She is not defensive. She does not point out the wrong doing of others. She does not attack the one who offers rebuke for the sake of heaven and decency. My greatest moments as a leader involved sincere apologies, not eloquent speeches. They were often offered in private, and on occasion, in public. They were difficult and required personal vulnerability and the trust of those to whom I apologized. They were rarely rewarded in the traditional sense.
Regardless of your position in life -- whether you are imbued with power by society or need to fight for it through your own cunning and tenacity -- you need to assume responsibility for your leadership if you choose to assume it. When you make a mistake -- don't deny, deflect, demean, or diminish. Just say your are sorry, and work not to repeat your behavior. In the Biblical tradition, God does not show greater favor to the rich or the poor, but judges us equally. Our positions in society do not absolve us of moral responsibility. Let us take that learning with us, taking the best of Judah's humility and respect for justice -- and Tamar's demand for both in the context of her concomitant vulnerability and strength -- as two pillars of ethical leadership. Both of these pillars are necessary for the work of justice and repair, and this moment is too important and too fragile for excuses or cut corners.