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Leading in Close Quarters

The third anniversary of the daring rescue of 33 Chilean miners will take place next week. The 2010 Copiapó mining accident, also known then as the "Chilean mining accident", began on August 5, 2010 following a significant cave-in at the San José copper–gold mine located deep in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The buried miners and other personnel were trapped 2,300 feet underground and survived for a record 69 days deep underground before their rescue, an effort that captured international attention and support. When they were finally brought to the surface on October 13 of that year, these international celebrities were greeted by family, friends and hoard of political figures and media members, all of whom came to witness the historical rescue firsthand.

Despite their joyful emancipation, the period since the rescue has been anything but positive. Recently, a three-year investigation into the mine collapse concluded that the owners should not face criminal charges, a decision met with widespread public anger. Criticism of the decision was immediate. Chile's former mining minister Laurence Golborne called it "unbelievable." Isabel Allende, a senator for Atacama region, described it as “painful.”

Mario Sepulveda, the charismatic leader of the miners who orchestrated their rescue under dire conditions, told the Associated Press that he feels "frustration, pain and … (that he) started crying" when he heard the news. “The majority of us,” he said, “are very bad in terms of emotional [health]… Today, I want to dig a deep hole and bury myself again; only this time, I don’t want anybody to find me.

Making matters worse, the miners have been blacklisted from working in other mines. One miner suggests that most mine owners are afraid to hire them because they feel that if there is ever a problem everyone will immediately find out about it since they “get a lot press."

This sad scenario reminds me in many ways of the situation that confronted Noah in this week’s Torah portion. Noah was born in an era of decadence and corruption, so much so that the world into which he entered was to be completely destroyed. Noah was selected to be the new Adam, a second progenitor of all humanity in the post-deluvian period that would represent a clean break from the sinful ways of his ancestors.

But it was not sufficient for the righteous Noah to sit back and watch God carry out His decree of destruction. Instead, Noah was tasked to do something that no one else would ever be required to do in the annals of humanity. He was to build an ark of sizable proportions and use it to shelter thousands of creatures from the destructive waters of the flood. Moreover, he was to build this ark over a period of 120 years, a lengthy time period designed to allow him to influence others towards change and repentance. Lastly, he was to care for and subdue all of the animals in the ark, which included the collection and distribution of food for the countless species under his care. And he was to attend to their needs in very tight quarters for many months, while practically ignoring his own essentials during that protracted time.

This last task was one that surely would have overwhelmed even the world‘s most gifted and energetic zookeeper. Certainly, it was a daunting task for an aged, righteous man who likely never engaged in any meaningful animal rearing during his first six centuries of life. What was it about Noah that prepared him for this monumental task? What qualities did he possess that allowed him to step into the role of savior and help perpetuate not only mankind, but the entire animal kingdom as well?

While the Torah offers no direct answers to these questions, a few hints can be gleaned that may offer us some additional understanding. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Genesis 6:9) analyzes the descriptions of Noah offered in the introductory verse. The verse calls him an “ish tzadik, tamim,” a righteous man who was perfect.  Rav Hirsch explains that each term, ish, tzaddik and tamim, independently signify unique aspects of his greatness.

Ish does not simply mean “man.” Any time that the Torah uses this designation, it testifies to the person’s distinction from his peers. The term tzaddik attests to his righteousness, an innate desire to meet the needs of others and ensure that they are adequately cared for. Tamim means that Noah had achieved moral perfection. And while these three accolades would be impressive in any age, it was a particularly special designation to receive a time of historic moral turpitude. By introducing the episode of the flood with a detailed description of Noah’s special character, the Torah may be teaching us that these qualities were most helpful in allowing Noah to meet his many responsibilities during this most trying period, by instilling confidence in those that he served, including even the animals under his jurisdiction.

Certainly, Noah demonstrated many leadership qualities during this challenging time, including what has been termed “servant leadership”, where the leader sees his role as serving his charges and helping them achieve their potential. He also provided much care and concern in an unassuming, selfless manner. But the qualities that gave God, as it were, the confidence to assign to Noah such a challenging task was the fact that he had achieved personal greatness, a willingness to place the needs of others, his maker as well as his charges, ahead of his own.

People seek many qualities in their leaders. Of course, they look to leaders for guidance, direction and support. They want to be assured that the individual who is leading them possesses the wherewithal to achieve the task at hand and direct them along a path of success. But people also want to know that their leader is a person of great character. They seek leaders who care deeply for their charges and remain properly rooted, focused, committed and balanced throughout even the most intense challenges. Knowing that the leader is fully invested in others’ successes and prioritizes their needs gives his followers a great degree of confidence and encourages their compliance through thick and thin.