This past summer I had the privilege of attending The Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. School leaders from around the world assembled in Cambridge, Massachusetts for one week in June to learn from and with Harvard’s best about school leadership. I went as part of a cohort of 15 Jewish educators from around the country though a grant given by the AviChai Foundation whose focus is to help produce top leaders for Jewish day schools. Whatever I did to attract Divine notice that should merit participation in this program I will never know, however I am ever grateful I had the experience. Our first session was presented by a man named William Henderson, a former principal in the Boston public school system who used several humorous anecdotes (by the way, besides that some of the smartest people teach Harvard, some of the funniest people teach at Harvard as well) spoke about the dynamic created in the school through the way we communicate.
This week’s parsha is Tazria. It, as well as next week’s parsha, Metzora, have a similar theme, that of the Metzora, the person afflicted with the malady called Tzaraat, often mistakenly translated as leprosy. Tzaraat is not leprosy rather it was a spiritual disease that was physically manifested by white patches on the skin. It was brought about by what is known as Lashron HaRa, literally, “bad speech.” We see this in two episodes in the Torah. The first, which is well-known, takes place in Parshat Behaalotcha where Miriam speaks about her brother Moshe and her perception regarding the relationship between Moshe and his wife. Through her slander Miriam is stricken with Tzaraat and must remain outside the camp for seven days of healing, which is the Torah’s mandate for the person with the disease.
The second episode comes much earlier, at Moshe’s encounter at the burning bush when he is given the task of bringing the Israelites out from Egypt. At one point Moshe says that the Israelites will not listen to him. The verse says, “HaShem said to him (Moshe), ‘bring your hand to your bosom’ and he brought his hand t o his bosom; then he withdrew it and behold he had tzaraat like snow . . . “ Rashi quotes the midrash on this verse explaining that Moshe was stricken with Tzaraat for saying that Israelites would not believe him. Unlike Miriam, HaShem immediately healed Moshe.
Indeed many rabbis use Parshat Tazria, and Metzora, to talk about speech. It is here that I want to bring it back to where we began. King Shlomo, about whom Jewish tradition regards as the wisest of all men, wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in the power of the mouth.” This was one of Dr. Henderson’s points in his presentation. How we speak to another can make so much difference. We can criticize and degrade and “cause the death” of someone by how we speak to them or we can breathe new life into them by how we speak to them. While criticism sometimes is necessary, and Jewish tradition recognizes as such, doing so can and must be done in a way that does not demoralize a person, but rather in a manner that enables the person to grow and improve. We have the power to build people up, to encourage people, to inspire people through what we say. A simple compliment for having done something well, a text, or an e-mail or even a (perhaps obsolete in today's world?) note, can lift the spirits or inspire one in ways we don’t even realize.
Parshat Tazria teaches us that words have meaning, that words have power. May we use our words to inspire and not degrade, to build up and not bring down.
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.