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Mashiach and Jewish Leadership

Mashiach and Jewish Leadership: Part 24 – The Sense of Folly

The last of our five dynamics, the sense of folly, is by its very nature the most paradoxical and enigmatic of all the soul qualities needed by a Jewish leader. The use of folly, the ability to display a good sense of humor and at the appropriate times even a little foolishness, in the right proportion to the wisdom and honor of a leader, mirrors his Creator's capacity to integrate and unify seemingly opposite states of reality.

We will introduce here three different perspectives to the application of folly, as found in the Bible and the Oral tradition. We will then discuss each one at greater length.

  1. A leader must on occasion apply severity in order to punish wrongdoing. As a result, those responsible are awakened to repent, while those witnessing or hearing of the punishment are impelled to heed the warning. The tendency to punish though, actually runs against the innate grain of the leader (especially a Chassidic spiritual figure) and therefore represents folly in relation to his own soul, in that it actually hurts him as much, if not more, than the person he is "punishing."
  2. There are times when a leader makes a fool of himself or even feigns insanity, as in the case of King David, as will be discussed, in order to redeem a situation or even save his own life. In these extreme circumstances a person must be able to employ a temporary strategy totally foreign to his very essence for the sake of a higher good.
  3. A small amount of foolishness, when used to awaken laughter and joy in others, is looked upon as "holy folly." Its proper use generates a spiritually conducive atmosphere, opening channels for deeper rapport and unity among people.

These three manifestations of folly correspond to the three stages of spiritual development as taught by the Ba'al Shem Tov–"submission," "separation" and "sweetening." Submission relates to the lowliness of soul engendered by punishment in both the leader and the recipient. Separation relates to the clarification resulting from the leader playing the fool, as will be explained. Sweetening occurs when "holy folly" leads to joy and happiness.

King Solomon, the wisest of all men, alluded to the characteristic of folly in a puzzling verse (Kohelet 10:1): "Dead flies stink, yet they ultimately express fragrant oil; more precious than wisdom, than honor, is a little foolishness." This verse, as understood by the Midrash, relates to three specific cases of a leader using punishment.

The first case brought is of Korach and his followers, who during the forty years of sojourning in the desert challenged the right of Moses and Aaron to lead the people.

Moses, after a number of futile attempts to make peace with Korach, told the people that if G-d would create a "new" creation, whereby the earth would open up and swallow Korach and his followers, they would know that G-d had indeed sent him. As he finished his words the earth opened and swallowed them up, thus confirming his Divine appointment. The punishment also served to convince Korach of his mistaken judgment, and as he descended downward he was heard to confirm Moses's authority, thus metamorphosing "stinking" words into fragrant oil. Even greater than the prophecy of Moses was his sense of folly in asking G-d to create a "new' creation, a request that on the surface defied logic and the usual sense of humbleness displayed by Moses. His purpose was to bring Korach to repent and confirm his right to lead the people.

The second case brought by the Midrash involves King David: Doeg and Achitofel led a campaign of malicious slander against David, challenging not only his right to be king but his very Jewishness. David, feeling betrayed, prayed to G-d to bring them down to the pit of destruction. It was this prayer which ultimately motivated them to change their attitude and repent.

The last case takes place in the days of Elijah the prophet: In order to turn the Jewish People away from their connection with the idol worship of the people living amongst them, Elijah challenged the priests of Ba'al to a contest to "prove" who is the real G-d. Each would have a chance to put an offering on an altar on Mount Carmel. The G-d who would come down from heaven and "consume" the offering before the eyes of the people would be accepted as the true G-d. All the people approved the plan and after nearly a full day of the priests of Ba'al trying all sorts of methods to induce Ba'al to appear, nothing happened. Elijah heaped scorn and ridicule upon them the entire time. As the day neared its end, Elijah, after one short prayer was answered and a fire came down from heaven and consumed the offering. The people in an intuitive response of true awe proclaimed in unison: "G-d is G-d." The threat of punishment to the loser was implicit and pervaded the whole proceedings, as is evident by their eventual execution.

The thread linking these three homiletic applications of the verse of King Solomon is that punishment, or even the threat of retribution, effected a repentance that wisdom could not achieve. In the cases of Moses setting up a situation in which G-d had to create a "new" creation and Elijah, who concocted a "contest between G-d and the idol of Ba'al," there lies an allusion of "holy folly." In this sense "holy folly" manifests itself as wisdom emanating from above normative logic or reason.

Another similarity between all three cases is the theme of descent; Korach descended into the abyss, David prayed to bring his enemies down to the pit of destruction and Elijah brought the false priests of Ba'al down to the valley to be killed. It is explained inChassidut that strong words of constructive rebuke, even without any punitive action, have the power to "bring down" the evil inclination and awaken repentance. All the more so when action is taken to support the oral rebuke.


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