In governance, stories

D’var Torah: Va’era

Mike Morgulis, HBT Board meeting January 23, 2020

Erev tov,

This week’s portion Va’era is packed full of leadership lessons.

God reminds Moses and Aaron, yet again, that God first appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and gave the name El Shaddai, and made a covenant with them. Now, with Moses, God reaffirms the covenant and identifies as YHVH. As in every other significant time in the Torah when someone’s name changes, so too it occurs at this pivotal moment with God.

According to Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Chasidic Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem, God’s expression of care changes with the needs of the time:

When God shifts from the ancient El Shaddai to God’s real name, YHVH, meaning, I will be what I will be, the relationship becomes more intimate. Since the older name’s meaning is obscure, Midrash takes the liberty to sermonize two components in shedai—sheh and dai, together meaning “it’s enough”—the Patriarchs got just enough of God that they needed. (Netivot Shalom on Ex. 6 translated by Reuven Greenvald)”

As leaders, this serves as a reminder that we too need to be aware of major events, and changes in the relationships we have with those whom we’re leading. What worked yesterday may not be appropriate any more today.

When God instructs Moses to confront Pharaoh yet again to announce 7 of the 10 plagues, it doesn’t go well. Moses complains to God while simultaneously distancing himself from the Israelites. “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”

How much does this sound like a middle-manager complaining to the boss? Moses is trying to remain in a safe and protected position. Moses is still not the leader God and the Israelites need him to be.

When Captain Miller and his squad are walking through the meadow on their way to rescue Private James Ryan, the soldiers tell him that the mission is fubar and Private Reiben asks for the captain’s opinion. He replies “I don’t complain to you Reiben, there’s a chain of command, gripes go up, not down. I don’t gripe to you, I don’t gripe in front of you, you’re a Ranger, you should know that.”

When pressed for his honest opinion, Miller replies

“In that case, I would say ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir, moreover I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you Reiben, to ease her suffering.’ ”

Back to Moses, who attempts twice to offer the excuse why he can’t be the leader, that he has a speech impediment, and therefore neither Israelite nor Pharaoh will listen to him.

Remembering Terry Jones who died yesterday, who directed and co-wrote the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian”, Pontius Pilate attempts to address the Hebrew crowd but he can’t pronounce the letter R. When, in response to his demand for a person to be released, the crowd gives him only names starting with the letter R, the first one being Roger. Pontius proclaims “Welease Wogah!” and laughter follows. As there is nobody named Roger in the jails, the crowd demands that Pontius welease Wodewick instead. It only gets worse when Pontius’ friend attempts to address the crowd, except he has a lisp.

People with speech impediments are often labelled and treated as if they have lower intelligence, even though there is no factual correlation between speech and intellect. Stephen Hawking is case and point.

While Moses has yet to put his total faith in God, God has total faith that Moses will perform, and God presents Moses with a solution to his speech impediment, to use others like his older brother, Aaron, to resolve the obstacle. This puts Moses back on track. Recall that his only prior example of conflict resolution was murder.

Moses, is still not an experienced leader of people. Sheep were easy, they don’t talk back, their needs are simple, and the flocks are small. People are not easy, neither is escaping en masse or evading an army.

On June 6 1944, General Eisenhower had a full staff underneath him, an industrial nation behind him, and months of preparation before he ordered 156,000 Allied soldiers ashore on D-Day.

By comparison, Moses is about to lead 600,000 Hebrew men, and their families, from Egypt, with only the help of God and a lot of blind faith but with no general staff, no board of directors, and no Transition committee. To give you a visual of 600,000 people, imagine 10 full Skydome arenas.

We often speak about congregants seeing Board members differently somehow, maybe not quite as Moses but we’re seen as leaders, providers, organizers, perhaps model congregants. Truthfully, most people can lead. While not everybody volunteers for a Board role, every congregant has needs and an opinion, and we must remember that we, too, are fellow congregants, we are not above them.

Golda Meir said it best when she told President Richard Nixon: “You are the president of 150 million Americans; I am the prime minister of six million prime ministers.”

And while Moses is being shaped by God to take on a massive leadership role, with many successive goals leading to one giant goal, God is also helping Moses become a better leader by taking ownership of the task.

In Pirkei Avot 2, Rabbi Tarfon said “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata bein chorin libatel mimenah.” It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. It continues, “the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come.” For Moses, the reward seems to be one commandment leading to another, towards redemption and fulfilment of God’s covenant. For us, the reward is successful service to the congregation and ensuring that it continues for the next generations.

I offer a quote by William Arthur Ward about teachers as it applies to those in a leadership role “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

And I’ll close with an aviation axiom that is as old as the Wright Brothers. “Learn from the mistakes of others, you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

May we learn from Moses and Aaron’s mistakes, and successes, and may our service be better for it.


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