RE:VERB THIRTY-EIGHT / PINCHAS / LEAD
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
The 4th of July fireworks over the Hudson River were fantastic. Crowded among the hundreds of thousands on the West Side Highway of Manhattan, we ooh and ahh and then make our way among the crowds to drink beers on a quiet roof and talk politics. One of us, the only born and bred American, sighs: ‘it’s so nice to finally celebrate the United States knowing that the leadership is in good hands.’ The Israelis among us sigh. Netanyahu’s 100 days of grace at the helm of Israel’s government were noted with great pomp, doubt and scrutiny just the day before. An Iranian born artist takes a sip of her beer, rolls her eyes and asks to please change the subject. A friend from Honduras concurs. The conversation veers off the political and goes off to discuss leaders in own lives – who are the people in our work and family situations who step up as leaders? How have they become these leaders? And what makes a good leader anyway?
I think of my brother B., a smart and sensitive rabbi who has slowly built a steady position as one of the more central and sane voices of orthodox Jewry in Jerusalem and throughout Israel- and beyond. His leadership model is a combination of honest care for the well-being of the other, inborn charisma, and the ability to truly listen. He’s also a great teacher, quite handsome and looks great on TV. Nowadays he is busy in the backstage of a political headache – having been asked to serve on the committee that will choose Jerusalem’s new Ashkenazi chief rabbi. One of the candidates is our cousin, an ultra orthodox rabbi whose main credentials include pedigree – he was born into a rabbinic dynasty - and having a long impressive white beard. He is otherwise not a Zionist, not a great speaker and not a representative of the greater Israeli society. Family loyalty aside, this is an ideological issue for my brother – and on a larger scale – for Israel as a whole - what will be the public face of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership? Who will step up among the new generations of religious authorities in the 21st century? Some want change – the type of change we can believe in. But many prefer the old models – a long beard and black coat and not too much rocking of the boat. When it comes to leadership – people are forever torn between the yearning for the familiar and the courage to think outside the box.
I think of the conversation I had a few days earlier with several cantors of the Reform movement. We’re sitting in a bar in a Chicago hotel, at a late night conversation during the annual American Conference of Cantors – where I am a guest speaker. The cantors, privately, discuss their own leadership challenges. In the modern day synagogue, the cantor is not what it used to be. Large booming voices and religious authority is often replaced with a guitar and a desperate need to attract the ever shiftless and wandering congregants. “It’s not exactly like we’re competing with American Idol" one of them says sadly – "but it’s not like we’re not.”
A day after the rooftop post-fireworks conversation, I go online to read the Bible (check out this brand new site codex sinaiticus – the oldest written Bible in the world) to study this week’s installment of the Torah – and I discover that it’s all about styles of leadership and the transition of leaders. There are, in fact, four types of new leaders in this text, called ‘Pinchas’ – named for one of those emerging leaders.
Pinchas, let's call him Type A, is the son of the priestly elite, and he is what we would call today a ‘fundamentalist with a short fuse’. He rises to power as a violent protector of the purity of Israel, killing a couple of publicly copulating people – a Hebrew leader and a pagan princess. Like generals who rise up to become presidents – Pinchas represents the type of leader who comes from the people – not chosen, but firmly embraced – the sometimes problematic popular vote (think Lieberman, or Palin).
Then there’s Elazar, Type B, the new High Priest, who stepped in just a few chapters ago to replace Aaron, his deceased father. This is a dynastic model. We don’t know how good Elazar is at doing his job as the spiritual leader of the Hebrew people – like all monarchies and dynasties (think Bush, Kennedy, or the Gahndi’s) he is simply born into the role. It seems that this type of leadership is not that common anymore, or at least not as easily supported.
Then there’s the real interesting model – Type C - the leaders of justice. Right after the inheritance laws detailing who gets what real estate in the Promised Land – a delegation of sisters steps up to challenge and change the system. The five early feminists are Noa, Milka, Tirza, Hogla and Machla – the sole heiresses of one Zelophachad, of the tribes of Joseph. Their claim for a fair share of land is heard by Moses and agreed to by God, who amends the inheritance laws in the favor of all women. Their leadership model offers the hope of legal reform and the courage of ordinary people to step up and change the system. Modern day example abound – from the Suffragettes to environmental and human rights grassroots activists.
And then there’s Joshua, son of Noon, Type D, who this week gets the official endorsement and steps into the mighty shoes of Moses.
Moses, planning ahead, knows that the stiff necked Hebrews need someone strong in charge. He approaches God with clear guidelines for a successor: “Let there be one who can lead them when they depart, and lead them when they enter, and let them not be as a herd of sheep that has no shepherd.” (Numbers. 27:17)
The job description is curious – it really sounds like Moses wants a glorified babysitter - take them out, bring them in, feed them on time. God obliges, but ads another important dimension of leadership that is added to the mix – the most crucial ingredient in the making of the leader: inspiration. Moses is instructed to hand over the leadership to a person who is ‘infused with spirit’ – one who is both inspired and inspiring.
One of the Midrashic commentaries writes ‘let the leader have a strong spirit so that he can handle the strong spirits of all others in the community.’
Moses places his hands on the head of Joshua Ben Noon, the man who somehow rises to power, following years of devoted civic service as Moses’ aid. He isn’t dead yet, Moses, but already in his lifetime he has clearly indicated that the inspired tradition of leadership will go on. Unlike Aaron, Moses is not handing the reigns to his children or nephews. This central leadership role is, at least officially, a matter of merit.
I’m flying back to Israel today, for a few weeks of wrapping up an intensive year in Jerusalem. Not sure where the drama of Jerusalem rabbinate is at these days but I’m pretty sure it’s just about to get bigger (stay tuned). Between meritocracy and aristocracy, chrismal and corruption – new and interesting leaders are bound to emerge. Or maybe the models aren’t new – the ones discussed here are the basic blueprint, and all we get are fascinating new faces, in each new generation. I only hope that the ones who get to lead us to yet better days are indeed truly inspired by the spirit of that which is most sacred and are able to lead us, as smart shepherds do, to the safety and security we all deserve. My money is on Type C. Let the ladies lead.
(And one more thing makes me really happy when it comes to new leaders – ladies AND gentlemen. I am thinking of the amazing people who’ve joined me in the last decade to make Storahtelling happen and change the lives of so many people for the better. I am constantly in awe of these inspired and inspiring artists and educators and funders and thinkers who have come together as a collective of shepherds making new meaning of our inherited stories for new generations. Like the rabbis of Jerusalem and the cantors of the Reform movement - these leaders are busy reshaping the map of what Jewish life is all about, re-charting the paths will lead us home. In the past week we’ve moved offices, finished our tenth year of operations, and got busy planning the next decade and beyond. O Storah leaders – a toast of thanks to thee.)