Parshat Va’etchanan: Guest Darshan Tony Kennison-Adams

Sometimes one has to really dig into a parsha to get a few thoughts on which to write a d’var. This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, does not need such digging; this parsha is an abundance of riches. It contains Moses’ narrative covering the freedom from slavery, the journey through the wilderness the provision of God and the pleading of Moses to God for God to change Gods decision stopping him from entering the promised land. It recaps the Decalogue and contains the shema.

Not wishing to outstay my welcome with a three-hour d’var, I will reserve my comments to a mini-study on the leadership style and behaviors of Moses with a view to understanding if this is a model of leadership that we can emulate as Jewish leaders today.

So why is this important to us sitting here? Primarily because, each one of us has a role in Jewish leadership. Be that in a formal leadership role in the shul, in work, as a parent, a teacher, a partner, or as part of a community raising our children together. Also, we are looked at by those outside of our community as different as a community within a community. People look to us for a lead. I remember some words that Sid gave in the introduction to his Bar Mitzvah Haftarah about our responsibility never to do anything that reflected badly on the Jewish community. Others are looking to us by reputation, as leaders or just as fellow travelers. One of the most import aspects of Moses’ leadership for me was not the grandiose miracles or earth shattering words, but his flawed humanity. This is an important lesson for us to be effective leaders; we do not need to be eternal or omnipotent, just human. We bring whatever we are into our leadership behaviors with us. But knowing that, makes us more effective than those who think they stand head and shoulders above the masses due to power or qualification.

So what human behaviors did Moses bring to his leadership? Moses railed against the people that it was their fault that he would never enter Canaan, when we know it was clearly Moses’ disobedience before God that was the bar to Moses inheriting the land. Was this Moses’ pride, regret, realization of a lack of faith or just a need to transfer his blame to others? Whether we feel sorry for him, believe it was just desserts or that he received his own reward in leadership or the manner of his passing, Moses’ folly is actually a demonstration of his humanity and like him we bring our weaknesses, frustrations, and inadequacies to our leadership rolls. Thus we should not be condemned by our humanity but encouraged by it.

It is often said that the role of leadership is to set the vision and remove the barriers. Moses certainly had the vision from the moment of the burning bush and he went on to remove the barriers of slavery of Pharaoh, the sea of reeds, bread, water, meat and so much more. But what kind of a person carries through such a mission when they know they will not inherit the vision, when they are going to put in thirty-eight years of effort and get no reward for their efforts. How many of us would start a physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual journey if the prize was thirty-eight years of kvetching and then being refused entrance to the winner’s enclosure. But such was the measure of the leader in Moses. He saw the vision and he removed the barriers. Much like the generations of leaders who eventually brought about the modern state of Israel. Their vision took two thousand years and, though there are still barriers to the complete peace and security of Jerusalem, leadership has brought Israel into reality. There is much in common with our wanderings in the wilderness here.

Moses however was not just a leader with a vision, but more importantly he was a follower. A follower of the leader Hashem. All great leaders understand the importance of being followers, of being under authority, because they understand the relationship that they have as a follower to their leader. A great example to this was when Moses acceded to the requests of the elders for him to appoint judges over the mass of Beit Yisrael. He could not be a judge alone. His followers came to him, he acknowledged the need and delegated authority to his followers to in turn be leaders. Followers have great ideas; they can be creative, insightful, and decisive but can only flourish and feel that they can contribute if the leader provides an environment in which they feel safe and valued. As leaders our role is not command and control, but climate control. We do not have to command and control followers, we have to control a climate in which followers will come forward, will risk, will experiment and will safe to do so. As leaders today we must not forget that we are still followers, we follow Torah, we align our lives with Torah precepts, instructions and commands. But we also put ourselves under the authority of others when it is for our good, the good of the community, our families, or even our children when they in turn are in a place where they become leaders. So to be an authentic Jewish Leader, we should first become an authentic follower, then nurture those who choose to follow us. This was what Moses did for Joshua, he gave Joshua the responsibility to spy out the land and in return he nurtured him to maturity and did what all leaders should do and that is to do themselves out of a job.

Moses in pleading with God to put aside God’s previous judgement banning him from entry to Canaan also was putting aside a key lesson that leaders must remember, and stick to, and that is that actions have consequences. In his pleading Moses was asking God to put aside the consequences of Moses’ disobedience to speak to the rock, but God knew that removing the consequence would not help Moses. One of the earliest leadership lessons in Breisheet is when God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden because they had disobeyed God’s simple instruction: don’t touch the fruit of that tree. Eat anything else but not that one.

Having worked a lot with young people, I have seen a trend that many who find themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble are those who consistently did not have to live with the consequences of there actions. Parents who had turned a blind eye to bad behavior, given a second, third, forth chance without consequence. Paid the fine for speeding, and still not held a son to account. Youth given a third, fourth or fifth caution that then learn to laugh at authority, until a judge eventually sends the kid to jail. As leaders we have to realize that our actions have consequences but that we too must hold those whom we ‘lead’ to account. Not just because of a rule but to promote growth and nurturing which is a key responsibility of leadership. If Hashem had said to Moses, “Ok I give up you can go to Canaan,” what would have been the effect on Israel? They would have thought that they had cart blanche to do whatever they wanted. If that had been so, would we be here today, or worshipping at a temple in front of a huge golden cow?

Actions not only have consequences but those consequences can have a ripple effect through time.

I was once told that if I wanted to know what kind of leader I was, I should turn around and see who is following me. The people followed Moses for forty years, they didn’t turn back, they didn’t go their own way. They followed Moses to the point of his death and then mourned the one whom they had loved. But they quickly got on with their lives and turned to the new leader, Joshua, and followed him into Canaan. Moses knew that the people would have to cope without him. The loss of the leader needs to be like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water, there are a few ripples but soon all is calm again. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said great leadership happens “ when the people say at the end of the task we did this ourselves.” The leader is not there for her glory but for the enrichment of the led, the followers.

As Jews, the Rabbis tell us not to seek leadership roles, but if we are called that, we serve with our whole being. But when the people elect one to leadership, that does not mean that one is in for an easy ride. The very person who casts their lot for the leader becomes the greatest critic when something does not go their way. Yes the people followed Moses out of Egypt but they were very soon were cursing Moses who had ‘led them to die in the dessert.” I often think that, to use animal analogies that a leader needs the courage of a lion, the cunning of a fox, the caring of a kangaroo, and the hide of a rhinoceros. But also they need those around them whom they can trust to keep them grounded. Moses was well grounded by Aaron, Miriam and others of his family. He was loved and even revered by them, but they still criticized him when they thought he was wrong such as with his marriage to “that Cushite woman.”

Having trusted advisors to help through leadership situations is vital, a partner, a friend, a teacher, someone that we can trust and keep us grounded. Moses had the benefit of walking with Hashem in a very physical sense. We have to strive for the same through our relationships with those made in Hashem’s image.

We must also not put on heirs and graces and flaunt our power as leaders, look what happened to Uriah as a result of a leader, King David, when he grew too big for his boots. Golda Mier, was never so grand as Prime Minister not to wash her own dishes. She wrote in her biography about a time when after a very long day she had had a large dinner in her private apartment with leading dignitaries. The hour was late when they left, but because her cleaner was coming in the morning she washed all the dishes and did the hoovering so as not to make the cleaner start off with a mountain of work for her day. This nor only speaks to the fact that Golda remembered where she had come from but even in the grand position of Prime Minister she remembered to look after even the lady who came to clean her bathroom.

We are part of a continuum of followers and leaders. We are just human even as Moses was just human, we are flawed, just as Moses was flawed, but that does not mean we should not step up to the challenge of making a difference as Jewish leadership. We must continue to have vision and remove barriers for ourselves and others as we lead and follow to our own Canaan.

Shabbat shalom

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