Leadership is an essential yet perilous undertaking. Our sages count public office among three actions that shorten a person's life (B. Berachot 55a). While the Talmud adduces a biblical verse for the first two items, the third life-shortening act - filling a leadership position - has no clear proof text. To buttress the deadly nature of leadership, the passages cites a rabbinic tradition concerning Joseph (Sota 13b).
The Torah tells us: And Joseph died and all his brothers and all that generation (Exodus 1:6). From this verse it is understood that Joseph predeceased his siblings (Rashi, 11th century, France). Indeed, Joseph - the second youngest child and six years younger than his eldest brother Reuben - died at the age of 110 (Genesis 50:26), while all his brothers reached the age of 120. Our sages explain his early death: "Since he conducted himself in a position of leadership."
Troubled by this prognosis, some commentators explain that this is only the lot of those who privately carry themselves with excess authority. In public, one of the demands of office is to adopt a strong, authoritarian approach before the masses (Rabbenu Hananel, 11th century, Kairouan). Indeed, manuscript versions of the Talmud contain this very distinction.
The difference between public and private conduct of leaders is rooted in another talmudic passage where the ailing Rebbi urges his son Rabban Gamliel to act with authority. Here the Talmud explains that this was a directive for public behavior, while in private no such airs are necessary. The nature of the position compels the leader to display authority before constituents (B. Ketubot 103b).
However this distinction is not accepted by all commentators. Other scholars prefer a different tack. They suggest that the lethal fate is reserved only for those who falsely attribute airs of authority to themselves and leaders who act in an unwanted overbearing manner. This fits in with the talmudic use of the causative verb hinhig (caused to lead) rather than the simple nahag (led): People who force their authority over the community are punished with premature death. People who are invited to play a public role or thrust into decision-making capacities in no way deserve an untimely end (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
This approach fits with another rabbinic source that attributes Joseph's lost decade to the 10 times he heard his brothers call their father "your servant" without protest. Joseph heard this appellation five times himself (Genesis 43:28, 44:24-31) and a corresponding five times from his interpreter as he pretended not to understand the language of his siblings (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 29). Standing by silently while his own father was referred to by the degrading appellation "servant" was an unnecessary assumption of authority by Joseph.
A later commentator identifies other assumed airs in Joseph's conduct with his brothers. Following the death of Jacob, Joseph did not invite his brothers to sit with him in mourning for this would have entailed him sitting after his oldest brother Reuben and after the leader of the brood Judah. This excessive concern with the public image of his authority was repaid with an early death (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, Central Europe).
Unfortunately, the shortening of leaders' days may be a natural consequence of their lives. Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud we hear another sage, Rabbi Yohanan, bemoaning leadership, claiming that it entombs officeholders (B. Pesahim 87b): "Woe to leadership, for it buries its possessors." This statement could mean that officeholders are buried in the quagmire of public responsibilities and civic duties. Alternatively, in concert with the previous talmudic passages we have cited, the officials may be literally buried as their life expectancy is reduced due to their occupation. In support of this notion, once again a scriptural source is cited: The prophet Isaiah outlived four kings - Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah - who all reigned while he prophesied (see Isaiah 1:1). Other prophets also brought the word of God during the rule of all four kings: Hosea, Amos and Micah (Rashi).
Elsewhere the Talmud discusses the reckless prophecy of Eldad and Medad (B. Sanhedrin 17a). Different suggestions as to the content of their prophecy are offered by the sages, but Joshua's response is taken from the biblical text (Numbers 11:28): My master, Moses, stop them! Joshua cried in a panic either because they were predicting Moses death or because they were irreverently prophesying before their teacher, Moses.
The Talmud asks: What was Joshua's intent when he urged Moses to obstruct them? Our sages suggest that Joshua was advocating their appointment to public office, for in this role they would naturally cease prophesying.
One commentator explains that public office is never a joyful task and the Divine spirit rests only on the contented. Once Eldad and Medad would be burdened with civic responsibilities and mired in the needs of the community, perforce their uncontrolled prophesy would be thwarted (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, Germany).
In this light, commentators have understood Shemaya's urging to despise public office because of its lethal consequences (M. Avot 1:10 with commentators).
Nevertheless, serving the public is a necessary hazard that cannot be avoided by all. This is the thrust of another talmudic passage (B. Sanhedrin 14a): Rabbi Zeira would hide in an attempt to avoid being ordained, following the adage of Rabbi Elazar to always remain in the shadows and thus survive.
Perhaps perceiving that the burden of leadership was discouraging a worthy candidate from taking office, a further aspect of rising to a position of responsibility was quoted in the name of Rabbi Elazar - forfeiture of all misdeeds.
Once Rabbi Zeira heard that a person's appointment to public office is coupled with forgiveness for all wrongdoings, he hastily presented himself before his teachers so that he could be ordained and have his sins forgiven.
Leadership may be a hapless, ill-fated and even lethal occupation. No one desires such a health hazard. Nevertheless, we all know the necessity of guidance and direction; the body cannot function without the mind to guide it. Leadership is certainly a burden, but a necessary load that is key to our advancement.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.