Rosh Hashanah 5768
September 13, 2007
One of the reasons that I went to rabbinical school was because I thought it was it was eternity I wanted to study, not profit and loss. Imagine my surprise when I found myself in a mandatory class on leadership with a book list of titles and included names like Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, and Peter Drucker. I read books about the difference between managers and leaders, the importance of board minutes, and how to get the most out of one’s employees.
Being a rabbi clearly involved more than knowing how to pray. Some books were commonsensical; know your customer and be sure to deliver the best product you can. Others promised success if you adhered to spiritual principles such as honesty, integrity, and empathy.
Who knew that a rabbi was a kind of CEO? In truth, the path to enlightened leadership applies to anyone who has the charge to show the way, including parents, as we discovered last night.
Those who know me understand very well that I came to this work with a treasury of inexperience. I was, and remain, a writer, and something of an introvert. It took more than a village, it took New York City to give me the confidence and faith that I could be a rabbi, one who could lead Jews in the direction of God, Torah, and Israel.
In this season of confession, I’ll tell you that I could hardly belong to a congregation or be on a temple board, let alone serve as a rabbi. God and my seminary had a plan, however. To be ordained I had to serve a community. On my first and only interview, I gratefully accepted the position offered me, and it was there that I learned how to be a rabbi.
Their hiring me was my first lesson. That I did not have five minutes of experience wasn’t an obstacle to this chavurah that had enjoyed 25 years of illustrious rabbis from the Reform movement. They took a chance and followed their intuition. Behavior is contagious; if they thought I could be their leader, then maybe I could. They were looking for something new, and my being a woman was already a revolution for them. Something told them that we would be a good match, and they were right.
We met once a month for Friday night services, High Holidays, and a few teachings during the year. Their custom was to have a couple of members-they were around 25 families-work with the rabbi to create a Friday night service.
After seeing my quizzical and panicked face in response to their questions about restructuring committees, they quickly determined that I would be of no use in helping them with organization, so they left me to be their spiritual leader.
The only trouble was, I had no idea how to do it. Did they know how much I needed a glass of water on the bima because I was dry-mouthed with terror at each service that first year? What did I know that they didn’t know? Why should they listen to me?
My rabbi, Harold Schulweis, once said that a rabbi has two tasks, to bring forth creativity in others and to reveal oneself. Was I supposed to let them know that they’d hired a very insecure person? Could I turn my humility into an asset as a leader?
I begged the seminary to let me out of this responsibility, but they made clear that to be ordained you must have a pulpit. So I struggled along, got a little less nervous, and one day God answered me through Torah when I read the Torah portion in Exodus about Moses as a young shepherd who one day sees a radically amazing sight, a bush burning with fire.
Much as he is awed, he is frightened by it, and when God calls his name, he hides his face. God must say “Moses! Moses!” twice because he can’t answer in his fear. He whispers, “Here I am!” God then tells him that he must go to the Pharaoh to get them freed from slavery.
“Ugh, maybe you have the wrong man. Who am I that I should be doing this?” Moses asks. God assures him that he won’t be alone: God will be with him. But Moses protests, “They’re going to say, who picked you to be our leader? What’s your name?”
God tells him to say I’ve been sent by “ehyeh asher eyeh. I will be there howsoever I will be there.”
“Right”, Moses thinks. “They’re not going to listen to me!” God keeps at it, trying to assure him. Mose stammers, “But they’re going to say, ‘You haven’t even seen God!” So God resorts to Houdini tactics.
“What’s in your hand?” God says.
“My shepherd’s stick. Throw it to the ground!” Moses throws it down and it turns into a snake. Once again Moses turns his head away, this time afraid of the snake. “Grab its tail,” God commands, and when Moses does this, the snake became his staff again. “Do that, and they’ll trust you,” God assures.
You’d think this would convince anyone, but not our teacher, Moses. He wants to remind God that he can’t speak clearly. God retorts, “You think I don’t know that? Who made you?! Now Go! Don’t worry about your mouth. I’ll put words into it.”
Moses is still not convinced. He whines that he wants God to choose someone else, and at this point God goes ballistic. “God’s anger burned” is how Torah reads. “You have a brother, Aaron! He’s a good talker. He’ll speak for you to the people. He’ll be your mouth. Now take your stick and do magic with it!”
Well, I can’t tell you how much better I felt after reading this. If God’s faith in Moses got him to go forward, surely I could trust my new congregation’s faith in me. Moshe Rabbeinu, my teacher and yours, is arguing with God in his insecurity. This was a chutzpah that encouraged me. More than simply identifying with his self-doubt, I came to see why Moses would become a leader for the ages. Moses is so human here, so afraid that he is not ready for primetime, the same way I felt. There is an expression that fear is a lack of faith. Thank God Moses lacks faith from time to time, too.
Yet it is his very doubt that makes him a great leader. Torah tells us that there was no man more humble: “More humble than any other person on earth.”
Some have said that those who would be president are the least worthies of the position. Only humility can save us from the power of leadership. Moses never forgets whom he serves; God has chosen him for the task and has given him the gifts he needs to accomplish.
Every new book on leadership begins the same way: we are living in a time where we are in a crisis of leadership. From governments to schools to families, the sense that no one is in charge is pervasive. Just look at this country and Israel! We long for leadership yet we resist it, because those who have power too often lack the humility to know its source.
Like all our Torah heroes, Moses is a flawed man. Besides his lisp and insecurity, he has a terrible temper, and he’ll pay for it later in the book. Perfection is not the criterion for a leader. Having a sovereign principle, i.e. knowing whom you serve, is. How often do we meet charismatic people whose ego doesn’t see that each of us is in the divine image?
His humility allowed Moses to call upon the gifts of all the people to sustain the community. As Schulweis taught me, it’s about bringing forth creativity in others. Some were priests and some served the priests. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ older siblings were subordinate to him, yet they and he knew that he could not succeed without them.
Moses was a shepherd in Midian when God appeared to him. We have a story that tells us why he was the one chosen. A baby kid ran away from the flock and Moses chases him until the kid stops by a stream for water. His heart was touched by the animal’s thirst and he knew that he was exhausted. He lifted the kid into his arms and carried him back to the flock. God tells him, “Since you have such compassion for an animal, you shall surely pasture My flock, Israel.”
Moses also carries the vision of Israel. He never forgets that he must free the people and lead them to a new land. He learns that courage isn’t a lack of fear but not letting it defeat him. Pharaoh is great but God is greater. Again, when I looked for signs of God in my own reluctance, I found it in the kindness and support of my first community.
That was ten years ago. Now I am at another stage and once again Torah guides me. During the summer, we hear Moses’ last words to the people. Although he is old and mightily tired of the people, he has trouble letting go. He begs to enter the land. After all, he’s put up with rebellion, revolt, whining, and death for forty years, but it’s no go.
God tells Moses to put his hand upon Joshua, his successor, and bless him. “Single out Joshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand upon him. Invest him with some of your majesty upon him, so that they may listen, the entire community.” Moses does more than God asks; he places both hands upon Joshua. He gives him all his majesty, all his heart, and all his might.
Letting go with the grace, humility, and generosity of Moses is the challenge. Founding leaders are notorious for hanging around and weakening the authority of new leaders.
I am not only a rabbi, I am also a mother of grown children. I have shared with you my delight in becoming a grandmother. I’ve learned, most of the time, to keep my mouth shut and let my children raise their children. I am now the grandmother, no longer the mother of our community, and here too, I am learning to be quiet and have faith in the strength of our community.
What I know is this: I am a teacher. The Talmud says about teachers of Torah, “More than the calf wishes to suck does the cow yearn to suckle.” I will be your teacher as long as you give me that privilege.
I am more fortunate than Moses, because, with God’s help, I will get to see the community move forward. Rather than wave the staff, I will learn to listen and follow the new leaders. I look forward to serving as an elder who can be counsel for individuals and the community. Meanwhile, a pot of soup will sit on my stove as I await your visit. May it be soon!