Friday, June 16, 2017
A well-chosen and experienced prestigious group of people is sent on a mission! The tasks are clearly set out for the members of this group and they are respected leaders of long standing, known to their tribes, to each other and to Moshe. They are “men of understanding,” wise ones, if you will. The task is not too much, the distance not exceedingly great, and the itinerary is clearly laid out. The instructions come from none other than G-d, distilled through Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no way to fail, right? NOT! Sounds like the beginning of a set- up or a great detective story of what went wrong and why and let’s find all, or at least some of, the clues in the most obscure of places. So, we will learn a bit from a well-known Israeli author who writes detective stories and mysteries, Dror Mishani.
First of all, Mishani has us consider who would be the best people to send on such a mission – to check out a new place, to see what is there and to report back on the various elements as instructed. He posits that perhaps the old and tired though well-respected leaders were NOT the best choice! What if youths had been sent, who were absolutely up for something new and exciting – dangerous even, an adventure that would be a game-changer for their lives? Would we have had different results?
Let’s consider the instructions for a moment. In 13: 17 – 20, we read as follows:
17 And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them: 'Get you up here into the South, and go up into the mountains; 18 and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwell there, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; 19 and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; 20 and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.'
Notice the final words of these instructions: וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם, וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ Now, they were not in the grocery store, so we have to understand what is being said to them when Moshe instructs: : וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם,… They will have to gather the strength to find, pick, carry and maintain these HEAVY HUGE fruits of the land. Who can do this better – younger or older people? Remember that these were the days where EVERYTHING was a matter of “working out” and there was no need for gyms. Let us consider how reactions to the task at hand would potentially resonate differently – those who will take on anything and anyone; or those who are making the decisions and have the “gift” of experience to help those who do not have the context for the largess of this experience? Not such a clear-cut answer, right?
To think about this a bit more deeply, is there something that might be lost as we consider who we have leading us and prefer experience and wisdom to younger and more creative individuals who may not follow so literally when they are told what to do? Think of those of us who work with groups of colleagues and younger professionals try to “break in” to our groups and meet with resistance.
Some of us sitting here heard Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov speak at the annual event Chabad holds to honor the Rebbe last Monday. Rabbi Shem Tov stressed something that really resonated with me. He explained how Moshe knew to turn and to move when G-d appeared. Moshe understood that something powerful and beyond his capability was happening at that moment and he needed to recalibrate, if you will, to reconsider known and successful behavior patterns, perhaps. In other words, when do we stop feeling that sense of awe that tells us something larger than ourselves is going on here?
When we do, I think, we stop leading effectively. Leading is NOT about knowing everything; it is about knowing what we know and being honest about what we don’t and humbly turning towards the source of knowledge and others to help support us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites seven principles of leadership, which I will name and cite their application to our narrative:
1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility. That means consider how your actions will have an impact on others. Your reactions will be followed and taken as a cue for the actions of the masses. 2. No one can lead alone. Even groups of leaders need the support of others to have an effect. It has been said that it is not the first person that begins a trend, but those who follow that person and spread it. 3. Leadership is about the future. It is perhaps here that the scouts, leaders and people failed the most; comparing what would be to what was; not what is to what can be. 4. Leaders learn. Leading is admitting that one does not know everything but needs to continue to grow in their own life. This means not speaking so authoritatively and not being convinced that you have all the answers. 5. Leadership means believing in the people you lead. An interesting question to consider is did the scouts, and in turn, the other leaders in the community have faith in the masses. Was the challenge too much for them or did they not have faith in the ability of those they led to meet up to it? 6. Leadership involves a sense of timing and pace. Perhaps it is here that we learn one of the biggest lessons in our drama – being free is NOT the same as learning to live as a free person; and the former does not guarantee the latter. It takes time to learn how to be different, how to take on new privileges and the responsibilities which come with them – with freedom. 7. Leadership is stressful and emotionally demanding. We are called on to be a Mamlechet Kohanim – a nation of leaders – and that is not just privilege or right, it IS responsibility in a large way!
Perhaps the leaders of the tribes of the B’nai Yisrael could not do this – accept the challenges of leadership, continue to learn new strategies in new settings, and hold onto a vision of the future. Perhaps the people who placed their faith in them would have seen doing so as a sign of weakness or uncertainty. As Ramban teaches us, the leaders of the tribes did exactly what they were asked to, no less and no more. In other words, they did not think “outside of the box.” Had they done so, the large stature of the people in Eretz Yisrael could have been seen as a positive thing, something to aspire to, instead of relegating themselves to looking as insignificant “grasshoppers” in their own eyes, and they supposed, in the eyes of others. For well-experienced leaders who had gone through the slavery of Mitzrayim and so many challenges that colored and determined their reactions to everything, this is understandable. Perhaps this would not have seemed so daunting to younger and less experienced scouts, who may not have succumbed to fear so readily and been more open to Sacks’ prescribed program of leadership.
Mishani goes on to explain that while sending younger scouts may have altered the report and thus avoid the negative reactions of the masses, there is a larger issue here. Simply, the B’nai Yisrael were not up to the task. Wishing for freedom and to live with personal agency was not enough. Had the larger group not experienced the same fear and hesitation as seen in their leadership, they could have given them pushback just as Caleb and Yehoshua did. But they did not! And this may be an important but often overlooked point. In other words, while many of our commentators fault the leaders who were sent with inciting the people; it is possible, that they only reflected and mirrored the fears that made all hesitate. This may be why the forty years in the desert were needed, explains Mishani. The B’nai Yisrael had to come to Eretz Yisrael with different mindsets and different skill sets and would need time to develop them, under new leadership. Think of this dynamic along the lines of those of us who are children of immigrants, whose first generation in a new land was so wrapped up with survival needs that it would be left to the following generation to strive for a qualitatively better life including more education and new professions.
As Mishani points out, and Nechama Leibowtiz agrees, the scouts did what they were supposed to do. They gave a positive report. While the text in our Parsha attributes negative intentions to them -- הָאָרֶץ דבת, note what they say:
'We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.
They then recount the various people who live there, all of this being within the framework of the objective reporting with which they were tasked. Nonetheless, it creates hysteria. Notice who leads this reaction, as we read in the beginning of Chapter 14:
1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.
While we read העדה כל ותשא , Rashi explains that EDAH is actually the SANHEDRIN, or the 70 elders, again the time honored and experienced leadership.
In too many ways, this may be considered an anti-leadership story in terms of those who have proven themselves and taken on the reins of shepherding the group. In Parshat Shoftim later in Sefer Devarim, we are taught that different times will call for different types of leadership. It may just be that this is one of the texts that proves this point.
John Quincy Adams taught that “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” This may very well have been the problem – the Meraglim, the leaders of their tribes, just followed the instructions. They did not dream so how could they teach others to dream? They could not learn or do more, so how would they become more? And this is what the B’nai Yisrael had to do, to become more so that they could be more. It is, perhaps, in this that the “community elders” failed the people.
This was clearly a test, and it appears that it may have been a test for all. Mishani compares it to a couple who meet and are going to get married. They begin with hopes and aspirations, then speak about all of the potential downfalls and when challenges confront them, if they are equipped to handle them, the couple will survive. If not, the prognosis is not good. Mishani thus suggests that time was needed for all parties – for the people, for new leadership to evolve and for G-d to figure out the new relationship G-d would have with this people as well. In so doing all parties had to step back and admit they had to learn about each other, growing within themselves first and then possibly grow together with each other and their new home.
May we all take this lesson to heart and remember that none of us is a finished product; thinking so and just doing what we are told to do by rote will not bring us to new heights and desired success. We must always continue to “scout out” new horizons and learn from all around us, including those who may not share our years of experience, turning to learn from all that is around us.
Friday, June 9, 2017
I am writing these words as I sit (during a bit of a break) at a day-long retreat that our Multi-Faith Council (yes, that’s you, CAMC and all of you wonderful people – my brothers and sisters in faith) has annually. I was honored by being asked to give the closing blessing for this wonderful gathering of about 25 – including Christians and Jews and Muslims of various denominations and identities. As I always think in terms of texts, I note that this week’s Torah portion for the Jewish Community is Parshat Be’Haalotecha. This portion begins with the words that are conveyed regarding the commandment to “light the lamps that give light in the Menorah.” At this point, the Parsha goes on to speak about the Menorah and other matters of import. Then, we begin to see troubles afoot, related to the use of language, loss of gratitude, complaints of the people of Israel, and general fears run rampant on so many levels. Towards the end of the reading, we read about hurtful words that Miriam utters regarding Moshe and his treatment of his wife, as well as the resulting harm it caused within their family constellation, in public, and ultimately, for Miriam herself. I find it so poignant that we begin this reading with the power of light and its wide reach and end with how wide reaches in our lives can be destroyed or compromised by our words.
Today’s retreat is all about words – the words that we use to connect to people of faith with whom we both share so much and simultaneously hold onto and honor the differences that are fundamental to our various faith communities. When we really want to accurately communicate with others, we watch our words carefully, being as concerned (if not more so) with what those with whom we are communicating are hearing as we are focused on what we are saying. This was perhaps the misstep of Miriam; speaking from emotion, without regard to how her words would be heard or further taken on by her brother, Aaron. While there are many explanations of what happened in this narrative, this is a possibility that I think is most worthy of consideration.
This morning, before arriving at the retreat, I checked my email and found a writing from a Rabbi for whom I have great respect and is becoming a treasured colleague. He wrote about how verbal attacks continue to bring our community down in so many profound ways. Specifically, he was referencing another Orthodox Rabbi who is quite respected and was talking about LGBTQ inclusion; and the vicious attack that was subsequently launched against him by other Orthodox Rabbis. This wise Rabbi, in explaining what happened in his writing, cited the threefold process that is often used to misuse and abuse our religious teachings; namely, take words and texts out of contexts; then play on people’s emotions and fear; and finally, align with people in positions of power who will accept your version of events and texts. As we all know too well, this is done way too often and by people in ALL of our faith communities. THIS WAS THE FOCUS of our day long retreat- how to turn this tide and to listen and share, truly looking to hear and have empathy for the other and to include that person in our own vision of our world.
We talked about taking risks, the importance of truly learning about, with and from each other and the value of shared space that we create by such meaningful and caring practices. One participant often uses the concept of “being held” by the group, meaning we attend to each other and are attentive to all that is being said and shared. Interestingly enough, within the narrative of the Miriam and Moshe incident, G-d reminds all that Moshe was “very meek, above all people on the face of the earth.” We know that Moshe did NOT always know the answer, going to his father-in-law, Jethro for advice; approaching none other than G-d in trying to figure out what to do regarding the property of Zelophachad and his daughters’ right to inherit it. G-d says that G-d speaks “face to face” (so to speak) with Moshe, precisely connected to how respectful and intentional Moshe was (which may not be the perception we have in every instance, but just stay with the point here).
Earlier this week, my husband and I, along with many friends, were at an event commemorating the Lubavitcher Rebbe and I heard a lovely idea from Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov that Moshe moved when G-d was present; and we too much recognize that whatever we know and whoever we are, there are always instances in which we must STOP, SEE and LISTEN; acknowledging that we DO NOT always know everything and should not take teachings out of context. It is humility that allows us to open ourselves up to our own inner thoughts, each other, our community, all humans, and ultimately, G-d, THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS.
In our Multi-Faith Council, we share so many fundamental and core beliefs across the differences of practice, definitions of community and how we relate to THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS. I am grateful beyond words for this group and I want to share the last words of my closing prayer from a little while ago (as I now sit after the end of the retreat).
Let us hold onto our sense of gratitude, continue to share words of meaning and engagement in our dialogue with each other, always acknowledging what we share and honoring our differences and RAISE LIGHT TO ALL through the use of caring actions. Let us open our arms fully to let in the breath of G-d, The Holy One, and commit ourselves collectively to do Tikkun Olam, repairing our damaged world and its shattered vessels, while we try to be the best and most humble people of faith we can be. Amen and I wish all Shabbat Shalom, a meaningful Sabbath to our Christian members, and a peaceful and fulfilling Ramadan to our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith.