What I learned about leadership from my father-in-law, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein
By: Leonard Carr
In 1985, just before Rosh Hashana, I made what turned out to be the best decision of my life. I attended a shiur of Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, ztzl, to whom this Project Shalom series is dedicated. Shalom was the central theme and guiding principle of his life. During that shiur, which I have and continue to revisit, I decided that Rabbi Goldfein would be my Rebbe and that I would follow him for the rest of my life. It would take me decades to fully appreciate exactly why that was the best decision of my life. I will no doubt understand it even better as I become more mature. I will try in this article to articulate some of what I have grown to understand about what Torah leadership means on a personal level. The personal is the most universal, hence my choice to write an article of personal reflections.
Sitting in that first shiur by the man who was later going to become my father-in-law, I sensed that I was in the presence of someone great. There was a luminosity in what he was saying. It was as if deep and powerful secrets of creation were just a natural part of him. I got to witness and understand, as I spent more time in his presence, that he understood Torah, not just simply as a kind of academic subject, but something that needed to be lived and embodied in a real way. It needs to permeate your entire way of being and not be something that you have learned by heart to be recited or quoted. Nor is Torah about simply being “frum”, a term that he did not like, and doing things by rote or because of superstition or to hedge your bets with Heaven.
There was no theatricality or use of devices to put his points across. He was always firm on the fact that true Torah speaks for itself. It does not need props or quirky entertaining methodologies to make it appealing or better understood. My understanding of Torah concepts and principles derived more from observing who he was, his conduct and reactions, than from words. The words helped me to recognise and describe what I was perceiving in him. This is the essence of what it means to be a person of Torah. Every shiur that I heard, including the tribute that my Rebbe made to his own Rebbe, HaRav Mordechai Gifter, ztzl, were descriptions of his own way of being, approach to life, who he was, and what was truly important to him.
Very often in relationships, especially those built on respect and admiration, people get disillusioned over time because as you get more familiar with someone, his faults and weaknesses become more apparent. In the case of my father-in-law, my initial impressions were only enhanced and deepened over the twenty plus years that he was physically present in my life.
Rabbi Goldfein was always a powerful and consistent beacon of truth and authenticity on every level. In fact, I would never have deeply understood what it meant to be straight, have true integrity, and live by what you teach, had I not met him. It is a quality that I admire more than anything in a person, and thus it was a great gift to find someone who was unwavering in his embodiment of this quality. He was always open and upfront about what his motives and intentions were and never allowed even seemingly benign or beneficial false impressions to be created or left. He could not tolerate justifications for falsehood and misleading people, like making up a fictitious story about a great person in order to inspire people.
For a leader, this quality instils confidence and trust in the people you lead. More than that, being unimpeachable gives a leader the power of moral authority. Being straight requires a person to be in command of himself. Being in command of oneself commands a respect and awe that inspires students to accept the authority of a Rebbe, to not want to disappoint him, and to live up to the ideal that such a leader represents. People feel a natural, healthy sense of embarrassment at the thought of not living up to one’s values in the presence of someone who does.
He would often speak out against biographies of great Torah personalities that implied that they were born great or that they showed greatness of character from a very young age. This was because, firstly, it detracted from the fact that the person had chosen to work hard on and gain mastery over himself in order to achieve what he did. It takes commitment, dedication, self-sacrifice, and, above all, hard work to reach those levels of greatness. Because Torah is spiritual in nature, and does not originate in the physical world, it takes enormous super human effort to penetrate its secrets, hold onto the knowledge, and integrate it into one’s very being. And, secondly, such books undermine the reality that greatness is available to anyone who chooses it and is prepared to put in the effort to acquire it.
A person who attained true greatness, through the guidance, example, and dedication to the teachings of instruction from his own Rebbe, understands the greatness of those who came before him and upon whose shoulders he stands. He also has insight into what it took those people to achieve greatness. This is part of the reason why someone who mastered Torah to the point of embodying it is also extremely humble. Reaching such levels of self-mastery requires constantly confronting the gap between where you are as a person in your thoughts and conduct, and where you need to be in terms of Torah ideals. This mitigates against any arrogance or false beliefs about oneself.
A person who is honestly engaged in this struggle will automatically have understanding and compassion for the challenges and struggles that all people endure in their attempts to become better human beings. The humility that emanates from this understanding manifests in an acceptance of who people are, where they are on their own journeys, and a sense of responsibility to help them with what you have to make their path easier. There was never even a hint of judgmental thinking in Rabbi Goldfein’s approach towards others. He was clear about values and principles. He did not, however, dramatise or make issues personal. He always maintained an objective stance and focused on the problem, not the person. In the face of people erring, his approach was to look at how you could fix the problem and never about why or how you created the problem.
This approach reflected the love of others that also stemmed in part from his humility. Judgment of others creates separation between the judge and the one judged. It also leads to negative or judgmental speech. Rabbi Goldfein never spoke about other people and, more than anything else, deplored gossip and speech that exposes weakness or flaws in others. Because he was so devoted to the ideal of shalom, he represented unity and harmony that can only be maintained if people guard their speech. This was always a major focus of his teaching and another reason why it was easy to trust him. It was always clear that what was said in confidence would not only not go further, but would also never be held or used against you.
A person who does not judge, does not hold himself extraordinary or special in any way, and understands how challenging life really is has the ability to make everyone feel genuinely valued and loved. This love was demonstrated through his engagement when he interacted with people. He always took an avid interest in people, enquiring about their background, histories, and work. This made one always feel interesting, and that what you had to say was important. He always exuded warmth and joyfulness that made people feel held and supported by someone who had the strength, based on confidence in Hashem, to maintain unwavering faith and optimism even in dark times.
In essence, the key to great leadership is to represent, through your way of interaction and responding, the ideals that you are trying to inspire and instil in followers. It is also building the trust, admiration, and respect that makes people want to live-up to your ideals and not disappoint or shame you through misrepresenting your teachings. Lastly, through making people feel truly valued and appreciated for who they are and loved unconditionally, you inspire in others the sense of self-worth and the courage and motivation to become better people and, in so doing, create a better world.