Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, literally means the 'head of the year.' And on this day we bless each other that we should 'get a-head' in all the ways that count. But our sages teach that sometimes the best way to get ahead is to be a tail! We should try to stick around people we admire and can grow from, even if we have to be the 'tail' or least among them, rather than be the 'head' or leader of a group whose behavior and values are likely to drag us down.
In our story, a kid discovers that being a 'head' doesn't count as much as what you're heading.
"HEADS WE WIN TAILS YOU LOSE"
Danny tried to pay attention to what Zach, the president of his environmental club, was saying in his speech, but his mind kept wandering.
"In November the plan is to help clean up the nature preserve and then we..."
He was proud and happy to be part of this dedicated group of kids who were really able to make an impact on the local environment. But it bothered him that he just had to do whatever the club's leaders decided.
"...though last year we successfully completed five projects, this year we hope to do even more..."
Why couldn't he be one of the leaders? Why couldn't he be the one to make the decisions for a change?
Zach finished speaking and Danny and the other club members made their way back to class. All official school groups had permission to use half an afternoon of class time per week to meet or go on field projects. His group always took this time off seriously and made sure to use it well for their environmental awareness project.
Danny was walking down the corridor when he heard someone calling his name.
"Hey Danny, come here for a second."
He turned to see Mitch and a few of his pals calling him over. He usually tried to keep away from those guys. They were a pretty wild bunch and into things he wanted to stay out of. What did they want from him?
"Listen," said Mitch, "me and the guys decided that we wanna, uh, get more involved in the envir-o-ment and we also wanna start a club."
Danny didn't get it. Public service seemed to be the last thing these guys were into. And why were they telling him about it?
"Well good luck then guys. I've got to run to class." Danny smiled, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. But Mitch went on.
"To start our club, we need to get the principal's okay. So we were thinkin' if we had somebody like you with us, who's already been part of a club and everything, we would get approved real easy."
Were they out of their minds? Why would he leave his club to join up with them?
"Sorry guys." Danny said, shaking his head, "but there's no way I could switch, you know I..."
"We would make you the club president," Mitch cut in.
Danny went quiet.
"Yeah, and vice-president too, if you want." snickered Ralph.
This made things a little different, didn't it? Danny thought. True, they weren't the best students in the school, but if they wanted to make a club - and have him as their leader - maybe it would be okay after all.
Mitch pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of the pocket of his jacket. "Here's the form we need to start the club. It's all ready to go. You just sign your name - on the top line as president, of course, and we're in business."
A little voice inside his head may have told Danny it wasn't a good idea, but if it did, it was easily drowned out by the big voice inside telling him how great it would be to finally become a club leader and not just a follower. He took the paper and signed it.
Sure enough the new club, with Danny at its head, was approved. Mitch and the guys wasted no time trying to convince Danny to call for the first field project during school hours to be a clean-up for a local playground. He went along with it, figuring the guys would work harder if they were doing something they wanted to do.
They arrived at the playground and Danny noticed some of the kids were carrying big sacks. Maybe they had brought along some tools to make the clean-up go smoother.
"Okay, let's get to it," said Danny with a smile beneath his 'Club President' cap.
"Uh, don't we just need a little five-minute snack first? You know, for, uh, energy," asked Mitch.
In his old club, everyone started working right away, but since it was their first time out, Danny reluctantly agreed.
The 'five-minute' snack turned out to be more like a 55 minute party. The guys pulled out sandwiches, chips and ice-cold drinks from their sacks. One kid pulled out a radio blaster and started playing loud music and another pulled out a Frisbee and a football. Danny thought he smelled cigarette smoke.
"Hey, we're supposed to be cleaning up, not partying!" Danny said to Mitch.
"Yeah, no problem. You're the boss," he nodded, "But how can we clean up anything, if we don't mess it up a little first?" he added with a wink.
Danny didn't know what to do. It was obvious that these guys had only come to skip some school and have a good time. Feeling like it was impossible to stop them, he even threw around the football a bit, though it made him feel really sleazy to be goofing off when he was supposed to be working.
Things finally wound down when one of the guys looked at his watch and remembered they had to get back to the school building or they'd get in trouble.
"Okay Mr. President, see you next week. Same time, same place!" smiled Mitch as they walked into the schoolyard.
"Make that Mr. Ex-President," Danny said, flipping him his leader's cap. "You can take over. I'm going back to my old group."
"But don't you wanna be club leader?" asked Ralph.
"No thank you. I'd rather follow people going in the right direction than lead people, including myself, in the wrong one."
Q. How did Danny feel at first about not being able to lead his original club?
A. He felt like it was worth even joining up with kids he usually stayed away from because of the way they behaved, for the chance to be the leader of a club.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He saw that it was better to be a follower in a good, serious club than to lead people who really didn't want to act properly.
Q. What life lesson did Danny learn about leadership?
A. He discovered that it wasn't important to be a leader for leadership's sake but rather it was more important to be around people whose values you respect, even if it means tagging along.
Q. Do you think if Danny had stuck it out and stayed on with Mitch's group, they would have become more conscientious like him, or he would have become more like them? Why?
A. Despite Danny's good intentions, it is far more likely that he would have fallen down to their level than they would have risen up to his. Human nature is such that the individual tends to conform to the values of the group and not the other way around. That's why it's so important to place ourselves amongst people whose goals and values we can relate to and wouldn't mind adopting.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Why do you think people have the natural desire to lead?
A. Deep down, we all intuitively sense a greatness within us. And this is a true perception, because God has planted a spark of His greatness - our Godly essence - within each of us. However, our greatness or leadership can be manifest in many ways and not only through leading others. In fact, sometimes our greatness can be in having the wisdom to choose whose leadership we will allow ourselves to follow.
Q. Can a leader of any given group be judged by the character of his followers?
A. In a sense, yes. A true leader should not only set policy, but also impart positive values and behaviors into those he leads through words, actions, and most importantly personal example. There is an old saying: 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree,' and if we see a group growing in a positive direction we can safely assume its leader is behind it, and if not, there is likely something lacking.