Friday, July 10, 2015

"'Who will go out in front of them'- What makes a leader?" - D'var Torah - Parashat (portion) Pinchas - July 10, 2015

“Let the Eternal One,
God of the spirits of all flesh
appoint a person over the congregation
who will go out in front of them
and will come in in front of them
and who will bring them out
and who will bring them in
so that the congregation of the Eternal One
won't be like sheep without a shepherd.”
That was how Moses asked for a successor
given that he would not be allowed to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan.
With God's guidance, Moses chose his assistant, Joshua, ISH ASHER RUACH BO,
a man with spirit inside of him,  to eventually take the people into their promised land.
This Torah passage raises important questions for us today.
What do we expect in a leader?
How do we determine criteria for what makes for
effective leadership?
Numbers Chapter 27 contains a few hints that could provide material for a new bestseller on "the qualities of the inspired, competent and visionary leader."     
    So what leadership traits were implied in the passage from this week’s portion, Pinchas?
    Moses was asked to appoint a person over the congregation.
Ideally, a leader recognizes that he or she is called upon to be responsible for and to be responsive to every member of the community.
It may take time to learn everyone's name and to gain a sense for individual stories and prized values.  
During that process of getting to know the people being served, a good leader discovers modes of speech that can reach everyone.  
Everything that he or she says may not comport 100% with every person's views, but it is helpful when at least some of leader's words resonate with the entire community.
   We can examine the rest of this section of the Torah reading  phrase by phrase to gain greater insight into specific components of leadership. 
Who will go out in front of them....
  What does it mean for a leader to go out in front of the community?
  That phrase could refer to the physical place which the leader occupies when standing in front of the people.   It is as if the leader, within himself or herself,  symbolizes the totality of the community. 
   I believe that "going out in front of them" also directs the leader to be open to absorbing new ideas from outside sources.   Conventions, retreats, travel, reading, conversations with colleagues, and personal study represent ways for leaders to "go out in front of the people," to broaden their personal foundation of knowledge in order to deepen their understanding of the skills they need for the duties they perform.
Who will come in before them...
 After seeking sources for new ideas and fresh perspectives on how the community can experience growth, the leader must return to the people to share his or her vision.  Such an approach doesn't mean that the leader would ask the people to completely jettison the past.   It would work within the existing framework of community life to draw the leader and the people closer so that they can move forward together.  
Who will bring them out....
   This phrase can envision the creation of partnerships that will offer the people an opportunity to enhance and augment their leader's vision so as to make it their own.  That can only happen when the people go out along with their leaders to familiarize themselves with new insights necessary to create positive change.
Who will bring them in....
The leader and community members, having shared and fashioned a new vision in which everyone has an investment and responsibility, apply their new knowledge and plans based in trust, mutual respect, and cooperation. 
 So that the congregation won't be like sheep without a shepherd.
Even with an ongoing partnership based in a perspective and approach that the leader and people share, a leader and his or her most trusted advisors still assume the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the people.   A shepherd offers direction, sustenance, and protection.   That is what a leader still must provide for the people so that they will move forward with hope and without fear. 
An individual with spirit inside of him/her.
What is the spirit that we expect from our leaders?  
In the section before the passage I will read, the five daughters of Zelophchad asked for something new.   Never before had women been allowed to inherit their father's possessions after his death . It had always been passed on to other male relatives.   Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah had no brothers. They made their plea to receive their inheritance without any guarantee that they would be granted their request.   In this case, Moses went to God to ask what to do.  In this unique tale in the Torah, God said yes.   Moses went back to these women to tell them the good news.  Even Moses learned that the law could change when a request was presented based in loyalty, logic and fairness.  
 I believe that the spirit we want in our leaders should be based in wisdom, dedication, and, as in this episode in the Torah, openness towards new ideas.
Perhaps that is what we saw in South Carolina with a decision not to fly the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds.  As I am sure many of us have heard, one speech supporting that decision came from a descendant of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. 
Perhaps that is what we have seen in certain decisions by the United States Supreme Court and by  governmental and community leaders over the years that have broken new ground, leading us towards fairness and justice. Leaders want us to think, to ponder, to feel, and, sometimes, to put ourselves in the position of others so that we can consider what changes might be necessary to create a society which grants a greater sense of equality.  And I believe that good leaders want us to follow the statement of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  "All the world is a narrow bridge.  The important thing is not to be afraid."  
Whether we lead or follow, may we do so with a sense of trust and an approach of shared responsibility.  May we move forward based on our determination to create a community that walks together across that narrow bridge as one people, all the while knowing that because of our unity, we need not be afraid.

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