As we begin the final third of the school year, we are reflecting on how the year has progressed so to develop a vision for the coming year. A major initiative this year has been the integration of The Leader In Me process into the fabric of the school, which is part of the Leadership Academy. Indeed many our discussions on the parsha in recent weeks have had focused on the theme of leadership, for there is much to learn from our Biblical ancestors about leadership and being a leader.
This week we read Parshat Shemini and we find a contrast in attitudes towards leadership. There is the tragic episode of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who are caught up in the frenzy of the inauguration of the Mishkan and approach it with “strange fire that He (HaShem) had not commanded” and when doing so “fire came forth and consumed them and they died.” However, immediately before this incident Aaron is told by Moshe to approach the altar to perform the ritual offerings in his new role as the Kohen Gadol. Aaron is hesitant to do so and as we have mentioned previously Rashi explains that Aaron was ashamed due to his participation in the Golden Calf incident and felt himself unworthy of the Kehunah (role of being a Kohain). Rashi writes that Moshe says to Aaron that he was chosen for this role.
The commentators grapple with what exactly was Nadav and Avihu’s sin that resulted in their death. Some say they were drunk when they approached the altar. Others mention their arrogance, that they held themselves above the community. The Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, records their conversation where they almost longed for the demise of Moshe and Aaron (their uncle and father) so they could take the leadership of the Israelites, “When will these two old men die so that we can lead the congregation?”
There is a stark contrast here. Aaron is reluctant to lead. Nadav and Avihu were eager, in fact too eager to lead. Perhaps the lesson is found in the contrast. On the one hand, leadership is challenging because people are complex and leadership requires one to deal with people, to take risks and face criticism and failure and that can be daunting. However, over-enthusiastic leaders, indeed over-confident leaders can do much damage unless they understand how their actions can affect the people they lead.
Does true leadership lie in this contrast? Jewish tradition acknowledges that Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu were great people. The difference was that Aaron needed to have his greatness pointed out to him so that he could lead in his own right, outside Moshe’s shadow. Nadav and Avihu were already convinced of their greatness to such a degree that it lead to their ultimate downfall. Perhaps leadership requires a balance between the two. A true leader must have a sense of his/her short comings to provide wisdom and caution, but not be debilitated by them to the point of fear of taking risks. At the same time a leader must know his or her strengths without being arrogant about them. A leader needs to approach the task with a sincere willingness to serve others and help bring out their greatness.
Our school is celebrating 30 years of leadership. May we develop our students into leaders who can balance these two pieces; that have the ability to recognize that while everyone has shortcomings, they indeed have talents which are Divinely given and may they have the strength and humility to use those talents to bring us to new heights we can’t even imagine.
I would bet that the most asked question posed to a child is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Even though many of us could not have answered such a question as children, the question continues to asked during elementary school, then into high school and certainly when beginning college. While some children are able to answer early on and that becomes goal, most need some experience in life, or the chance to determine academic strengths before embarking on that chosen career. Whatever the answer is, we spend much time and effort and money to achieve that goal.
This week’s parsha is Tzav and is discusses the laws of the Kohanim, and their role and duties as ministers of the Mishkan. Throughout the Torah reading Hashem instructs Moshe to tell Aarom and his sons how they will dress and how they will carry out their responsibilities of various offerings in the Mishkan. Aaron, as Kohain Gadol, is now the religious leader of the people.
At one point in the parsha, Moshe is to “take Aaron and his sons” along with anointing oil, the special garments and animals for offerings and in front of the people he is inaugurate Aaron into the Kehunah, the position of Kohain Gadol. Rashi says that Moshe had to win Aaron over with words. Aaron felt unworthy to be the Kohain Gadol due to his role in the Golden Calf incident. However, the fact that HaShem wanted Aaron to be the Kohain Gadol indicated that he had received Divine forgiveness.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have quoted often, points out that it was precisely the fact that Aaron made that mistake made his worthy to be Kohain Gadol. Leaders make mistakes, but their ability to learn from those mistakes and to grow and (hopefully) improve is what helps them develop into good, or better, leaders.
One can only wonder what Aaron felt at this point, as he was inaugurated into his new role as Kohain Gadol. Am I ready? Am I worthy? Am I credible? The answer to all three questions was yes. Yes, it was time for Aaron to come out from Moshe’s shadow. Despite past mistakes, yes Aaron was worthy of the sacred office of Kohain Gadol. And yes, Aaron was credible for HaShem’s desire for Aaron made him so. Whatever his hesitations were, Aaron did become the Kohain Gadol, he did perform the sacred ministry of the Mishkan, as only he could do, as he was meant to do.
Aaron had to realize that he was in fact ready, able and credible to lead as well. His type of leadership was to be different than Moshe’s, but no less crucial. Aaron was the man among the people. He provided the ritual functions in the Mishkan, but he was the peacemaker, he was the person who interacted and mingled with the people. His leadership complimented Moshe’s and their 40 years of combined leadership was critical in preparing the Jewish people for their eventual entrance into the Land of Israel.
However we answered the question as children as to what we wanted to be when we grow up, that answer now is probably different than the one we once gave. That answer, whether the one we gave as children, or what the answer turned out to be as adults, has its challenges. May Aaron be an example for us to face those challenges head on.
Shabbat Shalom, one and all.
One of the significant points about Megillat Esther is that the Divine name is not mentioned. Commentators have put forth various reasons for this. One is that when Esther was written there was the fear that the text would fall into the hands of the Persians and they would erase the Name and replace it with a Persian deity, and the Jews wanted to prevent this. Another reason is that Esther was written during the time when the Jewish people had been expelled from the Land of Israel and the absence of HaShem’s name reflects that reality. However, the rabbis of the Talmud did understand that if you read the Megillah closely, you can see the Divine Hand at work.
One of the more poignant moments where this is evident comes when Mordecai asks Esther to go to the king, her husband and intercede for her people, the target of Haman’s tyrannical plan. Esther says she cannot for one must be called to the king and she hasn’t been called for a month. If one comes before the king without a royal call, the penalty is death. At this moment Mordecai replies to Esther with a most critical response. He says, “Do not keep silent at this time relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from source another . . . And who knows whether it was just for this moment you attained this royal position.” Of all the beautiful women in the kingdom that could have been chosen to be queen, it was Esther, and it was for this reason. The Spanish commentator Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) writes exactly this point, Esther was chosen was indeed chosen to bring salvation to her people. The Divine is there. Now, Mordecai is telling Esther, is the time to act, now is the time to do what was meant for her to do, to fulfill that special role only she could do.
Mordecai’s words resonate. We each have a special role, a special task in this world that only we can do. Without realizing it, the Divine brings us to a certain place at a certain time to do something amazing, that no one else can. Purim is the holiday when we wear masks, to pretend for a day that we are something or someone else. However, Purim is in fact the day when we see the truth. The first step may be to take away that mask that blinds us to this reality, when we say, “I am here because HaShem wants me here.”
May Mordecai’s words inspire us to greatness.
When I left for college, my father, like any good parent, tried to steer me towards a discipline where he felt I had strengths. I had some talent in the graphic arts and I was able to put words together in a coherent fashion, therefore he thought a career in advertizing, or art would be a natural direction for me. He was shocked when I ultimately graduated with a degree from the School of Education and a minor in Judaic Studies and headed off to Israel and spent three years studying.
This week we begin the Book of VaYikra, which is a very different book than Bereshit or Shemot. There is essentially no story-like narrative in VaYikra, as it mostly consists of laws for offerings and sacrifices, laws of purity, holiness, laws for the Kohanim, and a morality code. The famous “Love your neighbor as yourself” is in VaYikra. The Israelites do not travel at all throughout the Book of VaYikra. In fact, at the end of Shemot, the Israelites are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, having just finished the Mishkan. At the end of VaYikra, and the beginning of Bamidbar, the Israelites are still at Sinai. The Cloud of Glory is over the Mishkan, signaling that the Divine presence is among the people. In many ways the Book of VaYikra is a presentation of laws for the Israelites as they now live with the Divine in close proximity.
The parsha opens with, “And He called to Moshe, and HaShem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” Rashi’s first comment is to address the apparent redundancy, “and He called . . . and HaShem spoke.” This “calling,” says Rashi is an expression of love. In the commentary Siftei Chachamim (Rabbi Shabsi Bass 1641-1717, Prague) we learn that before HaShem spoke to Moshe He would call, “Moshe, Moshe” in a loving way, and Moshe would answer “Here I am,” after which HaShem would then speak to Moshe and tell him the new command.
To a certain extent, Rashi is telling us that Moshe was lovingly called by the Divine to lead the people. This was not a mere task that Moshe was undertaking rather it was a calling (literally). Leading the Jewish people was Moshe’s mission in life, what brought meaning to his life, and as much as he initially tried to get out of doing so, he was ultimately compelled to lead, for this was the reason he was placed in that basket and set out on the Nile.
My father’s encouragement toward an art career came from a good place to be sure, but I never felt compelled to follow it. After more than 25 years in Jewish education I realize that it wasn’t my mission. It wasn’t the Divine call that I heard. We all have talents, we all have gifts. Each of us has a “VaYikra,” a calling, mission in life for which we have been summoned, a special mission only we can carry out. May we all be privileged to hear our “VaYikra” and fulfill our unique calling.
Parshat Pekudei is the climax of the parshiyot we have been reading for the past few weeks, for we have come to the point where the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert is now complete. In fact, not only is the Mishkan complete, but we also complete the reading of the Book of Shemot.
At first glance, Parshat Pekudei appears to be a recapitulation of earlier parshiyot describing how to build the Mishkan; what materials to use, the dimensions of the parts. However, the renowned Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz (1907 – 1997) of Jerusalem points to a number of places where the completion of the Mishkan parallels the completion of the world.
Looking back at Parshat Bereshit, the Torah says, “And the Heaven and the Earth were completed.” Our parsha says, “And all the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting was completed.” Both verses employ the same Hebrew root for “finish.”
The next parallel comes from the same two parshiyot. In Bereshit we read, “And HaShem saw what He made and behold it was good.” This parallels the verse in Pekudei, “And Moshe saw the whole Mishkan and behold they made it as HaShem commanded . . .” In this parallel the verbs “to see” and “To make” are used. In the first verse HaShem looks at the world He has created and considers it good. In the second, Moshe looks upon the Mishkan, which the Israelites have made and since it was done so according to HaShem’s instructions, the Mishkan is therefore good.
There is one final parallel between the two parshiyot. In Parshat Bereshit the Torah says, “And HaShem blessed the seventh day.” In Parshat Pekudei we read, “And Moshe blessed them.” In this last parallel HaShem and Moshe are bestowing a blessing, this blessing stems from the fact that what was created in “good.”
However, something even more significant is taking place. It is not enough that the world or the Mishkan have been completed. In Bereshit, once humanity is created, Adam and Eve are commanded “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the world a subdue it.” Humankind is commanded to use the world for the world has incredible potential and it would be a shame to let that potential remained hidden.
The same is found with the Mishkan. Next week we will begin reading the Book of VaYikra and in it the Israelites will learn how to use the Mishkan they have just built. They will learn what offerings to bring for various occasions, how to sprinkle the blood, when to bring the incense offerings. The true completion of the world and the Mishkan is evident only through their use, only through their benefit to humankind.
The world and the Mishkan are representative for human potential. Each of us has been graced with Divine gifts, and talents. These talents, the potential that we all have was not meant to remain dormant. Our potential was meant to be actualized, for the true humanity of a person cannot shine forth unless that G-d-given potential is unleashed. How much more can we do? How much further can we go – whether as individuals, or as a community? Think of what can be accomplished. We have the ability to do great things.
The Mishkan’s construction is now complete, the potential is there. As we complete reading the Book of Shemot may each of resolve to not only using our skills and talents, but to foster the same in others. In doing so, our best days lie ahead.
Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek!