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Corrupts Absolutely

A haftorah of power and passion

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Israeli soldiers practice the honor salute (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

A long, long time ago, when I was young and had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, I found myself succumbing to the weekly ritual of putting on the one shirt I owned that made me look remotely respectable and going on a string of random job interviews. The organizations whose good graces I sought were many and varied—a public relations boutique, an elite security firm, a travel agency operating undemanding European tours for middle-aged unmarrieds—but no matter the employer or the position, one question was sure to repeat itself. “Tell me,” some sunken-eyed mid-level executive who’d abandoned his hairline and his will to live sometime in the early 1980s would inevitably demand, “about a time when you displayed leadership skills.”

It’s a question anyone who has ever applied to anything has pretended to contemplate at some point or other before changing the topic and embarking on yet another thinly veiled paean to the self. But I was a savvier interviewee. I had an answer to that nagging, perennial question. I had S.

I met her in the Israel Defense Forces. I was a young and cynical Non-Commissioned Officer who had audaciously dreamt up a brand new department as a means to avoid doing actual work, and S. was one of the soldiers assigned to my command. She was nothing like the others: whereas her colleagues were happy to follow my lead, produce hefty reports and other misleading signs of productivity, and bolt back home in the early afternoon, S. was always spoiling for a fight. She was the daughter of privilege and was stationed with our small and desirable unit through the efforts of her influential mother. A few weeks after her arrival, it became clear to her commanding officers that S. was not to the mess hall born and viewed authority the way bulls view the matador’s red flag. Placing her in my care, then, was a stroke of genius. It relieved the higher-ups from having to contend with the feisty young woman, and it assured them that if, for whatever reason, I, too, failed to tame her, I could easily be sacrificed to her powerful mum.

It took S. four days to unleash her fury on my small and peaceable kingdom. It began with a roll of an eye, crescendoed into a symphony of sighs, and soon arrived on the brink of insubordination. One day, S. arrived sans uniform, wearing fashionable jeans and a torn t-shirt. Another, she didn’t arrive at all, telling me, when I called her cell phone, that she was too tired to report for duty.

Despite being as of yet unaware of the all-important question regarding leadership skills looming in my professional future, I instinctively knew what I had to do. I summoned all my soldiers, S. included, to a meeting, and unceremoniously removed the rank insignia from my shoulders and slid them across the table toward a silent S.

“Here you go,” I said. “You seem to have many ideas about how this place should be run. You’re in charge now. Tell us what to do.”

It took her a moment or two to realize I wasn’t kidding. She tried to act indignant, but I wouldn’t budge. If she thought she knew better, I told S., now was her chance to prove it. Sensing her colleagues’ hungry looks, S. understood she had stumbled into a showdown and had no choice but to draw. She placed the ranks on her own shoulders and announced she was now in charge. Then she smiled and instructed all of us to get the hell out of her office.

Her triumph, however, was short-lived. For all of my leniency and good humor, I ran my department efficiently and knew how to motivate my soldiers. S. didn’t. She treated her former peers like servants, abused her power whenever she could, made mistakes, got in trouble, tried to cover up, panicked. Three days passed, then five, then a week. Soon, S. asked me out for a drink.

While shakily holding a cigarette, she apologized. She had no idea, she said, how tough it was to be in charge. She gave me back my rank insignia, shook my hand, and promised to be a perfect soldier. And, for the remainder of my time in the office, she was.

I thought about S. as I read this week’s haftorah, which details the efforts of King David’s son Adoniahu to elbow aside his brother Solomon, the heir apparent. The story depicts the court as a cluster of conspiracies, a byzantine institution where power-starved parties are forever at each other’s throats. Throw in the virgin who appears at the story’s outset to help keep the ancient monarch warm, and you get a story that makes Showtime’s raunchy Henry VIII series, The Tudors, look tame.

The main function of the tale, however, only becomes evident when compared to the week’s parasha, which tells the story of Isaac and Rebecca and the death, at age 175, of Abraham. Unlike the redheaded king, Judaism’s Founding Father has no court but a tent, no kingdom but a divine promise of a great nation that will one day spring forth from his loins. More importantly, Abraham faces no succession war but passes the mantle peacefully to his son. And unlike Adoniahu, Isaac understands that authority, in its truest sense, can never be usurped, but must be bestowed on its proper owner at just the right moment in time.

This sentiment is anathema to modern minds. We, a generation bent on empowerment, have come to believe fervently in Gloria Steinem’s famous edict, that power can be taken but never given, and listen to the Beastie Boys when they opine that one must fight for one’s right to party. Adoniahu sure did, colluding with the commander of the army, keeping his father’s loyalists at bay, and conducting all the rituals of coronation to cement his ill-gotten stature. And yet, by the time the story ends, he is denounced and the crown promised to his wiser sibling.

But the biblical system is anything but retrograde. It is, in fact, astonishingly meritocratic, dulling the edge of ambition and impeding its ability to woo and wound the powers that be. It places at the helm only those most deserving of privilege; it may deprive people of a modicum of agency, but it also blissfully robs them of their shining ounces of unsubstantiated pride.

In an age when challenges to power have become the stuff of popular t-shirts, such absolutist talk of preordained appointments can make many of us squeamish. But before we roll our eyes at the heavens or take a shot at the crown, let us remember that there’s another way, and that power is pointless unless it is deserved and well-used. It’s a rule I’ve put forth a thousand times in a thousand different job interviews: sometimes, the best way to see if you’re fit to lead is to take off your ranks and see if they ever make it back to you.

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Corrupts Absolutely

A haftorah of power and passion

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