Leadership seems to be the catchword these days. In the newspapers I have seen workshops and conferences advertized devoted to the theme of Leadership. Indeed, here at GBDS we have a Leadership Academy and we have dedicated the year to Leadership as we have integrated The Leader in Me process into the school through the 7 Habits. I have been doing much reading about leadership in my graduate work. While I haven’t yet found a clear consistent definition as to what leadership is, we look for it, and we all know when it is absent.
This week’s parsha is Ki Tissa, and in it we read one of the more painful episodes of the experiences of the Israelites during their travel through the desert. It is the incident of the Golden Calf. Moshe has been on the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites miscalculated the timing of his return and are concerned when he doesn’t appear on the day they expect. They react by going to Aaron, who has been left in charge. Aaron requests gold from the people, throws it into the fire from which emerges a golden calf.
Whether or not this was actual idolatry is not clear. A simple reading of the Torah text makes it appear as if idolatry did in fact take place. Most of the commentators say that the Golden Calf was to replace Moshe so that there was no mass sin of worshipping an idol. Even if this Golden Calf did become the object of idolatry, it was done so only by a very small minority of Jews, and most that did worship it were the Eirev Rav, the Egyptian rabble that joined the Israelites when they came out from Egypt. When Moshe descends the mountain and discovers the Golden Calf he is furious, he throws it back into the fire, he grinds it into powder, sprinkles the powder into water and forces the Israelites to drink that water. The question that is raised here is why was there a lack of leadership that caused this incident to take place?
When confronted by Moshe about the incident, Aaron denies responsibility. Instead he blames the Israelites. “Don’t be angry, my lord,” says Aaron. “You know how prone these people are to evil . . . they gave me their gold and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” The interesting point is that Aaron is not punished for this incident. The punishment he received of not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel was due to he and Moshe becoming angry at the people and hitting the rock when the people complained about a lack of water many years later. Later in Parshat Eikev Moshe tells the people that HaShem was angry enough with Aaron because of the Golden Calf to kill him, but Moshe’s prayers prevented that. Indeed Jewish tradition on the whole does not take Aaron to task for this incident.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack’s, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have quote before, makes a very compelling point. He suggests that the problem was not so much a lack of leadership, but rather the wrong type of leader. Aaron is known as man of peace. Pirkei Avot teaches, “Be like students of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.” Aaron is known as the one who would go to both people who had a dispute and work to bring them back together. Aaron is considered a leader of the Jewish people, however in a different mold than his brother. Moshe is the one to stand up in front of the people, rallying them together at times, and standing against them at times. Aaron is among the people inspiring them from inside, making peace. Aaron’s failure, writes Rabbi Sacks, was trying to be a Moshe working against the crowd. Only Moshe could be Moshe. Aaron was indeed a leader in his own right, but his leadership role, his leadership style was different than Moshe’s but no less important to leading the Israelites.
In any group, any organization we need leadership. What is leadership? The answer may not be so clear, but what is clear is that there are different types of leaders. There are the leaders who stand up in front and rally the people. There are leaders who are quiet and influence from the inside. There are leaders who have the talent to do both. We never know what challenges we will face. We must have leaders who have vision, who have principles. We need leaders who are connected to people and who care about making their lives better. We need leaders who inspire. Then we can face those challenges and do things we can’t imagine. Moshe and Aaron were two such leaders, leading in different ways, yet bringing the people to new heights.
The tenor of the parshiyot changes this week and for the remainder of the Book of Shemot. Except for the episode of the Golden Calf which will take place in two weeks, the main theme is the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them during their 40 year sojourn through the desert. This week we read Parshat Terumah which describes the various vessels the Israelites were commanded to construct for the Mishkan, as well the instructions for the Mishkan itself.
The Torah describes the materials used for the Mishkan one of which is the skin of a Tachash. This is an animal, which according to the Talmud, existed only during the time of Moshe and apparently only to be used for the Mishkan. Rashi quotes the Talmud which describes this animal as a multi-colored one with a horn in the middle of its forehead. Commentators say this was a beautiful skin and it was used for the uppermost cover of the Mishkan.
As in many of the episodes in the Torah, there are so many lessons to be gleaned. The same is true here. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Palestine, taught one such lesson. He writes that the skin of the tachash with its many colors represents the talents of many people to be used together for one purpose.
In Parshat Noah, the people of the earth united and built a tower to the heavens. Unfortunately, that venture ended up as a failure, for even though they had a sole purpose, “to make a name for ourselves,” it was ultimately a selfish one and the people were scattered and given different languages to keep them separate. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British commonwealth (I appear to be quoting chief rabbis this week) makes the point that the construction of the Mishkan, which unified people as well, was different. The construction of the Mishkan was the “first great project” of the Jewish people. While the Mishkan was temporary to be sure, it brought the Israelites together for one united purpose. People brought materials, in fact they brought so much that Moshe had to ask them to stop, they brought their time and they brought their talents, with one Divine focus.
The Mishkan united the people. This period in many ways was one of preparation of the people for the time when they would enter the Land of Israel and create a new society there based on the teachings of the Torah. The difference was that the miracles that occurred during the 40 years in the desert were more overt than those later on. The people needed to learn to work together, and the Divine request for people to donate to this Mishkan teaches that everyone has something significant to contribute. There will always be challenges to be sure, but when people unite their talents, as represented by the Tachash, when there is a common, noble (in this case Divine) aspiration, unlike the Tower of Babel incident, greatness shines forth.
This is our task here at GBDS. May we continue to unite, to pool our collective talents, to work as one so that rich and meaningful Judaism emerges in all its beauty.
For the last many weeks we have been riveted with the saga of the Israelites in Egypt, their lives as slaves, the torment of the Egyptians with the plagues and the thrilling escape of the Israelites from their tyranny. We experienced the fright of being trapped between the water’s edge at the Sea of Reeds and the approaching Egyptian army, and spectacular miracle of the sea splitting, and traveling between the walls of water and eluding the grasp of Pharaoh. Finally, last week’s parsha concluded with the revelation of the Divine and the gift of the Ten Commandments. While the spine-tingling sense is absent this week with Parshat Mishpatim, the significance is no less crucial.
The parsha opens with “And these are the laws that you (Moshe) shall place before them.” The parsha is essentially a litany of laws that are presented to the people as they know set about to create a society outside Egypt. Rashi comments on this first verse that the “And “, the first word of the verse teaches that these laws are a continuation of the Ten Commandments that were given at Sinai. Commentators point out that these laws are more detailed in contrast to the Ten Commandments themselves which have a much more broad sense to them. To a certain extent, the Ten Commandments articulate a vision, whereas the laws in this week’s parsha present the details of that vision.
The first law discussed in the parsha is about an Eved Ivri, the indentured servant. A person who stole and could not pay back what he stole, or one who was so impoverished that he could not support himself, could become an indentured servant for a period of six years. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth points out that the Torah is taking a historical experience and transforming it into law. The Israelites just spent centuries as slaves (Avadim) in terrible conditions. The Torah is legislating how one must treat the Eved. As Rabbi Sacks writes “Slavery is transformed from a condition at birth to a temporary circumstance.” The parsha mandates that slaves not be beaten and experience the Shabbat. The back-breaking servitude the Israelites experienced in Egypt is now legislated into a relatively short-lived humane occurrence.
The remainder of the parsha is the same. The laws are given to enable the Israelites to weave together a new society based on how they relate to one another. In Jewish parlance these laws are known as Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro, Commandments between People. Laws about causing bodily injury, damage to private property, stealing and the like are enumerated throughout the parsha.
There is a story of three men who were employed to cut blocks from stone. When they were each asked what they were doing, the first answered, “I am cutting stone.” The second answered, “I am earning a living.” The third responded, “I am building a palace.”
This third man got it right. He has the vision. Judaism is indeed a palace and a beautiful one to be sure . Parshat Mitshpatim is more than a legislation of law. It is part of the Torah’s blueprint for building that palace. This palace is built on ritual to be sure, for Shabbat and holidays, prayer, kashrut are essential, but equally crucial to this edifice are these laws that help us to know what to do when we make a mistake, how to relate to other people. The Talmud teaches that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam, senseless hatred between Jews.
Last week, right before the revelatory experience at Mount Sinai the Israelites are referred to as a Holy Nation. With the giving of the Ten Commandments the Israelites were entrusted with a mission. The laws in Parshat Mishpatim are the details in order to actualize that mission, they are the values with which use to create a more perfect world.
May we be worthy heirs and continue that sacred mission.
The excitement that we experienced last week in Parshat Beshallach continues this week. The Israelites are now out of Egypt and now the task of building a new post-slavery life begins. We witnessed the challenge this task brought last week when the people complained about the food, the water, even the accommodations. While the ultimate reason for the exodus, the giving of the Israelites the Torah, and thus a framework to live as a free nation dedicated to the Divine, takes place at the end of this week’s parsha of Yitro, that challenge is ever present throughout the Biblical narrative.
Yitro, a Midianite minister, is Moshe’s father-in-law. According to Rashi, Yitro heard about the spectacular events at the Reed Sea and what took place with Amalek and decided to cast his lot with the Jewish people. As is well known, Yitro sees that Moshe spends his days judging the people, listening to their issues from morning until night. Yitro admonishes his son-in-law, telling him that he cannot do this on his own for he will become worn out. Rather he must delegate the responsibility of leadership to others. And so, Moshe, heeding his father-in-law’s advice, sets up a system of judges to handle the minor issues; the greater issues will remain with Moshe. Thus we see one aspect of the greatness of Moshe’s leadership, the willingness to take suggestions and allow others to lead.
One of the qualifications that Yitro says is necessary for leadership is that of truth. According to Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, known as the Rabbeinu Bachya, a Spanish Torah commentator who lived from 1255-1340, this qualification of truth is really one of character. Indeed, the Rabbeinu Bachya writes that while knowledge and wisdom are of course necessary, even prized attributes needed for leadership, it is ultimately character that sits at the top of the ladder. Using verses from the Torah about each as proof, he points out that Noah, Avraham, Yaakov and Moshe were all praised for their character, rather than their wisdom.
Ultimately this is what we strive to be: people of sterling character, people of integrity and truth. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the “signature of the Divine” is truth. Jewish tradition places great significance in knowledge and wisdom to be sure however character refinement remains the most essential quality not just for leadership, but for life.
The parsha concludes with the incredible event at Mount Sinai; the Divine revelation of the Torah. With the giving of the 10 Commandments we see in this parsha the two pieces of Jewish tradition that must go in tandem with each other, the ritual side(interestingly enough, the only “ritual” in the 10 Commandments is Shabbat), and the ethical side. It is said that Jewish tradition is about action. This is indeed true. Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, prayer are fundamental elements of Jewish practice, there is no Judaism without them, but they are authenticated only by character.
May the Judaism that emerges from this school be one that teaches, encourages and supports both sides of this precious coin.
If ever there was an exciting parsha, this week is it. Parshat Beshallach has all the makings a gripping, spelling – binding movie. As the scene opens the chase is on with the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites who find themselves at the edge of the Reed Sea. The Egyptians are at their heels and there is no where t o go, there is no escape. Nachshon ben Aminadav walks into the water up to his neck, Moshe holds his staff over the water and suddenly the sea splits in half, allowing the Israelites to walk through the sea on dry land. When the Egyptians follow the Israelites the water flows back over them and drowns each Egyptian soldier. The Israelites witness this miracle and break into a joyous song of thanksgiving, Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea.
If that isn’t enough, even though the Israelites are the beneficiaries of such an event, they complain about the food, the water, the accommodations, nothing is good. They are given water, they are given food, things seem to get a bit better, but then they are involved in yet another battle, a surprise attack from the nation of Amalek, the nation that represents pure evil in Jewish tradition since they attacked the Israelites from behind, where the weaker people were found. The wicked Haman from Purim is the embodiment of Amalek.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth points out something significant. Unlike the scene with the Egyptians where the Israelites watched the Divine defeat of their oppressors, this time the Israelites had to fight. Moshe tells Joshua to “choose men for us and go do battle with Amalek.” Moshe stands on the top of a hill holding his staff over his head. The Torah relates that when Moshe raised the staff, the Israelites prevailed, when he lowered it, Amalek prevailed. When Moshe’s arms became tired Aaron and Hur supported his arms in order to keep them raised. Joshua and his men eventually defeated Amalek.
A mishnah in the Talmudic tractate Rosh HaShanah discusses this battle. The Mishnah asks whether it was Moshe’s arms that won the battle or not. The Mishnah answers that it was not; rather it was the people looking up and seeing Moshe and their realization they had the Divine on their side that gave the Israelites the fortitude to persevere and overcome their opponent.
Rabbi Lord Sacks says this was the key element. Moshe was the leader of the people. He didn’t fight this battle. The Israelites fought this one. It was their seeing Moshe on that hill holding his staff up that inspired the people, knowing he was there. It was the recognition that their leader believed in them that stirred the Israelites in such a powerful manner that they defeated their enemy.
Who inspires us? Who is our Moshe up on hill that gives us encouragement to push forth against challenges? We all have that certain individual who gave us the strength, the courage to overcome challenges. But more importantly, for whom are we a Moshe? Who do we inspire? To whom do we give that emotional, spiritual support and reassurance that they can indeed face the challenges they confront?
Moshe is known as Rabbenu, which means “our teacher” for he is the teacher par excellence. However, I have begun to realize that he is the Manhig the “Leader” par excellence as well. He believes in and supports his people, his role is to foster the potential in the Israelites so they may be their best.
Yes, we all have our Moshe, may be aspire to be a Moshe for others.