Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Armor for Leadership: Exploring the Breastplate in Parashat Titzaveh


One of my greatest pet peeves is when the media focuses more on the clothing of a leader rather than her actions.  We all remember Condi Rice gaining a great deal of attention for wearing her stunning, sharp Darth Vader-esque pantsuits.  Hillary Clinton also has not escaped the curse of the scrutinized pantsuit! Why can’t we just focus on their performances as leaders instead of how they dress?  Of course, this is often a gendered concern -- men are rarely scrutinized in this way and on this level. That said, there is a kernel of truth to the adage that the clothing makes the man.  Indeed, in this week’s portion, titzaveh, the Torah emphasizes the importance of clothing and its connection to successful leadership.
       In this week’s portion, the Torah focuses a great deal on the wardrobe of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.  One of the signature parts of his wardrobe was the choshen mishpat, the “breastplate of judgement.”  According to tradition, this breastplate had semi-magical powers, providing correct judgments to the high priest.  I think that we can learn two important things about leadership from this piece of clothing -- a metal plate filled with twelve precious stones all representing the 12 tribes of Israel:

  1. 1. According to Ibn Ezra, it is not a coincidence that the piece of clothing used to divine the future and guide decision making fell over the heart of the high priest.  He writes, “Just as the Ark is mentioned first among the furniture of the Tabernacle, the breastpiece is mentioned first among the clothes of the High Priest.  It contains the Urim [precious stones] and is worn opposite the heart, a more honored place on the body than the shoulders.”  In order to be an effective leader, you need to have your congregation close to your heart.  Holding your tribes, your children, your congregants, or your students close to your heart is more important than carrying them on your shoulders or bearing them in mind.  If you do not feel their presence and importance on a deep emotional level, you will not be able to serve them effectively.
  2. The name of the breastplate is quite bizarre.  What does it mean to be a “breastplate of judgment?”  One of Rashi’s explanations for this name is quite beautiful and conveys an important, if uncomfortable truth.  He writes, “Its purpose was to provide atonement for judicial mistakes.”  The High Priest needed protection in order to do his job.  He had to carry great responsibility, and as a human being, he was bound to make mistakes.  Therefore, before he enters the risky business of leading the people Israel, he needs to gird and protect himself -- from his own errors and from the complaints of his followers when he has erred.  A person who exercises meaningful leadership, who takes risks in order to lead a people to live more righteous lives, is going to make errors and enemies.  In order to assume a leadership role, one needs to protect his heart from the pain that inevitably comes from leading a human community.

The breastplate, the choshen mishpat, serves two important, almost contradictory roles for the High Priest.  It at once keeps his followers close to his heart, and it also serves as a shield against the hurt that working with them can cause.  Exercising effective leadership requires a leader to maintain opposing values concomitantly, and holding this balance will often determine whether or not she succeeds.  Let us learn from the example of the High Priest -- achieving real intimacy with the people we seek to lead and change, while protecting ourselves so that we can continue our work with wholeness, peace, and integrity.

Shabbat Shalom!