Vaera – 5780 – Leadership With Purpose

By: Michael Carr

Every Shabbat we have the opportunity to listen to congregants speak about a particular area of the parsha that informs, reminds us or get’s us thinking about an idea or particular  topic. It is a privilege to share D’var’s with the Kehilat. This week’s parsha inspired me to consider the topic of leadership.

There are many Torah interpretations of what makes a good Jewish leader though a simple and synthesized version I found came from Lianne Heller of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary who notes that leadership can be found in the ‘Shorashim’ (roots) of the three ‘L’s:

1)  Listen – Shema Yisra’el where we are commanded to hear, listen, obey, pay attention, heed and understand – all by that single word, Shema.

2)  Learning – While usually instinctual and constant practice it also stems from curiosity and of course asking the right/relevant questions. In fact one of our many Torah scholars, Larry Tobin, taught me about asking the right questions during his multiple Pirkei Avot sessions. For example I remember that Pirkei Avot asks us “Who is Wise” – and usually it is one who is open to learning from all people.

3) Love – the last of the ‘L’s’ in this trifecta- is found in the concept of Betzelem Elokim; people are made in God’s image. We are taught to love and respect one another throughout our lives.

So jumping to today’s Parsha, Vaera, what can we learn about Leadership and the three ‘L’s and how did an oppressed people who experienced centuries of slavery become inspired to freedom?

In today’s parsha G-d said: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord. But when Moses told this to the Israelites they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.”

In fact, the great leader Moses took at least 5 opportunities to convince G-d he was not the right one to lead the Israelites to freedom. These memorable quotes from Exodus include:

‘I’m not good enough’ – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” -Exodus 3:11

‘I don’t have all the answers’ – “Then Moses said to G-d, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” -Exodus 3:13 

‘People won’t believe me’“Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘G-d has not appeared to you.’ ” -Exodus 4:1

‘I’m a terrible public speaker’ – “Then Moses said to G-d, “….I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” -Exodus 4:10 

‘Anyone but me’ (I’m not qualified) – “…please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.” -Exodus 4:13   

Along with the L’s one might say that G-d added a ‘P’ for persistence to persuade Moses and would also provide a big ‘C’ of Credibility for Moses’ leadership. In fact, G-d knew Moses was the right person – after all he had been raised in Pharaoh’s palace.

The Israelites didn’t know what they didn’t know after decades/centuries of being born and working in a repressive culture of hard labor. They were restricted to “living” (if one could really call this a life) a hard cruel and unusual life.

So it is remarkable to consider how G-d, Moses and Aaron were able to get the “crushed” Israelite slaves to believe in a ‘remote’ glimmer of freedom particularly from two leaders, one with a speech impediment, stutter or stammer and of course his articulate brother Aaron. As we know G-d directs Aaron to speak on behalf of Moses as they are messengers from G-d.

By the way contemporary stutterers who have also had their difficulties include the likes of Marilyn Monroe (who had a speech coach), Winston Churchill (who practiced his speeches relentlessly), and Tony, Golden Globe Winner, “May the Force be With You”, voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones (yes-indeed that James Earl Jones).

So back to our Parasha – can you imagine persuading a guy (Pharaoh) who was referred to as ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ (ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt) because he alone owned all of the land, made laws, collected taxes, and defended Egypt against foreigners?

By the way he was also known as ‘High Priest of Every Temple’ (no doubt to G-d’s disdain) because he represented ‘Earth G-ds’, performed rituals and had Israelites and others whose lands he had conquered provide the indentured servitude necessary to build temples to honor those G-ds.

So on the one hand, how and why would the Israelites choose to follow the Leadership of Moses and Aaron given the slaves obstacles of mind and body oppression/depression and hard labor? Between G-d, Moses and Aaron they started a ‘Movement’ toward freedom.

Further – what about powerful Pharaoh who laughed at the thought of freedom for the slaves. He only want to keep what he had and continue his powerful and terrible reign of authority.

Let’s get back to our ‘L’s’ – Moses and Aaron listened to G-d and in turn the slaves ‘Listened’ to the word of Moses and Aaron which sparked a belief, purpose and cause – Essentially a movement of FREEDOM.  Over time the Israelites believed that they would one day experience freedom by Listening and observing the experience of plagues delivered through the actions of G-d through Moses & Aaron.

Pharaoh on the other hand did not Listen to Moses and Aaron let alone anyone. No one could influence him in spite of the plagues due to his hard-headed ignorance. Pharaoh had a different belief system – one grounded in ‘Earth-G-ds’.

What did the Israelites Learn?  Through their daily foggy oppression from fear of punishment or death the Israelites personal purpose was moment by moment survival, satisfied by a small amount of food and water and hopefully no beatings. With the guidance and shared beliefs of Moses and Aaron they Learned to believe that one day they would experience freedom though freedom came with changing an ingrained belief system of oppression to to one G-d and one G-d only. They Learned to believe their lives could actually be filled (one day) with peace of mind in a land flowing with milk and honey.

What did Pharaoh Learn?  Not much – and G-d wreaked havoc on his lands and people with the plagues. Perhaps Pharaoh believed that his ‘earth G-ds’ like, Hapfi the G-d of the Nile, Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and Ra the sun G-d were vulnerable to the plagues.  With every plague before the death of the first born son – Pharaoh’s fear, EGO, arrogance and pride grew and stopped him from seeing the severity of enslavement and oppression. He listened to Moses and Aaron’s request to free the slaves when it became ‘painfully personal and convenient’ with the final plague and the loss of his son.

What about Love?

Pharaoh sought to protect his Love of collecting taxes, creating structures in honor of ‘Earth G-ds’ and controlling the level of oppression and very hard labor the slaves endured.

Through their movement, Moses, Aaron and the Israelites had a shared purpose, belief and cause to learn to Love their G-d, Love their fellow-man and most importantly to Love themselves to ultimately find self dignity and respect.

Leaders throughout history have had their challenges and some have overcame them such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela and Churchill to name a few.

For those of us that choose a leadership role in 2020, how will we apply the ‘3-L’s’ to Listen, Learn and Love in a leadership role?  Our newly elected Shul president, Mike Raboy, and board members have committed to improve programs that will help our congregation grow and provide inclusive programming.

What will you choose to do in a volunteer Leadership role or otherwise this year?  As you think about your own Leadership role in this new year consider this quote from Seth Godin:

“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”  They will follow not because of you but because of their personal shared purpose, belief or cause.