Tag Archives: Moses

Leadership, Doubt, and Hamilton – Va-era 5779

The whole family and I saw Hamilton at the Benedum Center on Wednesday night. Really, it was awesome. We already knew the soundtrack; my kids have it mostly committed to memory, and, thankfully, they have the good sense to, when singing along with the soundtrack in the car, NOT audibly recite the four-letter words.

One of the themes that the musical tangles with is leadership: what makes a good leader; what was truly revolutionary about the leadership of the American Revolution. When Alexander Hamilton, “young, scrappy, and hungry,” arrives in New York to seek his fortune, he clambers into the spotlight, while the more politic Aaron Burr cautions him to “talk less, smile more.” When George Washington announces that he will not seek a third term as president, we see King George across the pond, guffawing about how ridiculous it is for a leader to yield power to somebody else. Hamilton is not a reluctant leader; he vows over and over not to “throw away his shot,” and makes all the moves to position himself as a leader. He is not afflicted with doubt. He spends every waking moment writing, speaking, publishing, and his gift with words and ability to lead with the pen is formidable.

Alexander Hamilton

Let’s contrast now with that other epic musical that we feature each week here at Beth Shalom, the Torah, and in particular, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, who is filled with uncertainty.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.

  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in Va-era, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” i.e. that his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed. Moshe is uncertain of his abilities as a leader because he is not a public speaker. He is obstructed. In some sense, Moshe is the anti-Hamilton.

From the moment that we meet Moshe, in fact, we rarely see him emerge from this state of self-doubt.

But I would like to make the case that Moshe’s uncertainty is what makes him a good leader. Doubt is healthy and natural. Consider your own doubts.

Or, consider mine. I remember a teaching session back at Temple Israel of Great Neck when I expressed my own doubt about God always hearing prayer.

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And, by the way, how can God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disingenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith. And I am 100% certain that Rambam would stand with me on that one.

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We in the Conservative movement maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

These are deeply skeptical times; we do not look to the heroes of past years, or turn proudly to our institutions for uncorrupted inspiration. The 20th century, the American century is long over. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind – government, corporate, religious, even medical – run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors – Israelite subsistence farmers – faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the great natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good. No need for me to come to shul (synagogue).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith, of the power of doubt. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says in God in Search of Man (pp. 154-5) that

“Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?”

We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do.

Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

And that is why we should fear the leader that has no self-doubt.

By emphasizing Moshe’s concern about his “uncircumcised lips,” the Torah is actually insinuating that he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not his lips that are uncircumcised, but rather his heart — he does not want to accept that he is, in fact, capable.

But we know how the story ends.

What do we learn from all of this? That we can, as with Jeremiah (4:4), cut away that obstruction around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in this world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about any religion, particularly Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.

And furthermore, uncertainty is what ultimately makes leaders great. The ability to re-evaluate, to re-frame, to re-work the plan when necessary, the willingness to concede your uncertainty is what allows for a true leader to thrive. I would pick Moshe over Alexander Hamilton any day. (I think.)

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/5/2019.)

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Anger Is Not a Strategy – Huqqat 5778

Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, loses his temper at least three times in the Torah. One happens in parashat Huqqat following the death of his sister Miriam, who (the midrash tells us) always had access to water in the desert:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!” Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces.  The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.  Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

Moses took the rod from the Lord, as He had commanded him.  Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.  Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2-12)

While commentators propose a range of theories about why Moshe is punished, the prevailing opinion is that it was due to his anger.

anger

We are in a particularly angry moment here in America, and all the more so in Pittsburgh, given recent events. But anger is not a strategy for change; it is a strong motivator, but not an effective path forward. The 15th-century mussar (ethical) text Orhot Tzaddiqim, whose author’s name is unknown, tell us the following:

Orhot Tzaddiqim (15th century German mussar / ethical text) 12:13-14

(13) Anger leads to mistakes. Who is a greater man than Moses, our teacher? Moses, upon him be peace, was angry in three places, and he made what would generally be termed “mistakes.” … And so, you can understand that if these things happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, when he was angry, what can happen to fools who are angry! And therefore Solomon said, “Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry” (Eccl. 7:9).

אורחות צדיקים י״ב:י״ג

הכעס מביא לידי טעות; מי לנו גדול ממשה רבינו עליו השלום, שכעס בשלושה מקומות ובא לכלל טעות:… מלמד שנשתכחה הלכה ממשה (ויקרא רבה יג א). ועתה הבן: אם כך הגיע למשה רבינו עליו השלום, מה יגיע לכסילים הכועסים? ולכך אמר שלמה (קהלת ז ט): “אל תבהל ברוחך לכעוס”.

 

(14) And you must be very careful not to do damage in your anger, for our Rabbis said : “He who rends his garments, breaks his utensils in his wrath and scatters his money should be in your eyes like one who worships idols” (Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 105b). For this is the artful craft of the Evil Desire. Today he says to a man, “Do thus.” And on the morrow he says to him, “Go ahead and serve idols.” And the man goes and serves.

 והיזהר בה מאוד, שלא תעשה שום קלקול מתוך כעסך. כי אמרו רבותינו (שבת קה ב): המקרע בגדיו, והמפזר מעותיו, והמשבר כלים בחמתו – יהא בעיניך כאילו עובד עבודה זרה. שכך אומנותו של יצר הרע: היום אומר לו “עשה כך”, ולמחר אומר לו “עשה כך”, עד שאומר לו “עבוד עבודה”זרה” והולך ועושה.

It is Moshe’s anger that leads him astray; acting on our anger, suggests the author of Orhot Tzaddiqim, ultimately leads us to avodah zarah / idolatry, one of the greatest prohibitions of the Torah and of Judaism.

The Conflict Dynamics Profile* (conflictdynamics.org) lists a series of behaviors to which we often resort in times of conflict. These are the destructive behaviors, a few of which Moshe is guilty in this episode:

 

  • Winning at All Costs – Arguing vigorously for your own position and trying to win at all costs.
  • Displaying Anger – Expressing anger, raising your voice, and using harsh, angry words.
  • Demeaning Others – Laughing at the other person, ridiculing the other’s ideas, and using sarcasm.
  • Retaliating – Obstructing the other person, retaliating against the other, and trying to get revenge.
  • Avoiding – Avoiding or ignoring the other person, and acting distant and aloof.
  • Yielding – Giving in to the other person in order to avoid further conflict.
  • Hiding Emotions – Concealing your true emotions even though feeling upset.
  • Self-Criticizing – Replaying the incident over in your mind, and criticizing yourself for not handling it better.

 

So how do we respond constructively to conflict? Here are some suggested strategies:

 

  • Perspective Taking – Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand that person’s point of view.
  • Creating Solutions – Brainstorming with the other person, asking questions, and trying to create solutions to the problem.
  • Expressing Emotions – Talking honestly with the other person and expressing your thoughts and feelings.
  • Reaching Out – Reaching out to the other person, making the first move, and trying to make amends.
  • Reflective Thinking – Analyzing the situation, weighing the pros and cons, and thinking about the best response.
  • Delay Responding – Waiting things out, letting matters settle down, or taking a “time out” when emotions are running high.
  • Adapting – Staying flexible, and trying to make the best of the situation.

 

Had Moshe been able to manage his own anger, and channel it into one of the constructive strategies above, his outcome might have been different. And so too with us.

Here’s an idea: print out the destructive and constructive responses above, and post them on your refrigerator or bulletin board. You can use these to help improve your own personal relationships, and even society as a whole.

If we are to get past this angry moment, we will have to think constructively, and not merely act out of anger.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Based on a discussion at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/23/18.)

*Thanks to Bob Leventhal of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Sulam for Emerging Leaders program for bringing the Conflict Dynamics Profile to my attention.

 

 

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