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 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 celebrities were greeted by family, friends and a horde 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 the 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 a lot press.”

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

But it was not sufficient for the righteous Noach to sit back and watch Hashem carry out His decree of destruction. Instead, Noach 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 numerous 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 Noach 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. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Bereishis 6:9) analyzes the descriptions of Noach offered in the introductory verse. The passuk calls him an “ish tzaddik, 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 Noach had achieved moral perfection. And while these three accolades would be impressive in any age, it was a particularly special designation to receive in a time of historic moral turpitude. By introducing the episode of the flood with a detailed description of Noach’s special character, the Torah may be teaching us that these qualities were most helpful in allowing Noach to meet his many responsibilities during this most trying period by instilling confidence in those he served, including even the animals under his jurisdiction.

Certainly, Noach 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. Perhaps it was because of these qualities that Hashem assigned Noach such a challenging task.

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’ success and prioritizes their needs gives his followers a great degree of confidence and encourages their compliance through thick and thin.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. 

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