Tag Archives: leadership

Committed to the Cause

Last week saw the beginning of the 116th Congress of the United States, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats controlling the House, and Mitch McConnell remaining in control as the Majority Leader of the Senate and Nancy Pelosi returning to the role of Speaker of the House. Additionally, we saw a record 102 women sworn in the House and 15 in the Senate. 36 women are freshman members of Congress; 23 Freshman House members are people of color. There are also currently more than 10 out openly LGBTQ members of Congress. We saw the first Muslim women and the first Native Americans sworn into Congress as well. This Congress is without a doubt the most swearinginbooksdiverse in our country’s history. CNN shared a picture of the variety of books that members of Congress chose to place their hands on when taking the oath of office. This included the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Buddhist Sutra, the Hindu Vera, and the Constitution itself. Locally, new members of Congress are veterans, former employees of the state department, and worked in previous presidential administrations.

I was mesmerized by the social media posts of these newest members of Congress, documenting the beginning of their tenure as elected officials, promising to represent, We the People. No matter our views on their positions or promises, their documenting this experience is truly incredible:

Or newly sworn-in Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer for Iowa’s First Congressional District:

Or Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who tweeted:

Or Congressman Brian Mast, a military veteran who congratulated two new freshman members of Congress who are also military veterans with the tweet:

To see these individuals enter a leadership role is a reminder of the power that each of us has to become leaders. Parashat Va’era focuses on the first seven of the ten plagues that fall upon the people of Egypt. Prior to those ten plagues though, the Torah recounts the genealogy of Aaron and Moses, linking them all the way back to Jacob’s children, and in doing so, linking the leaders of this exodus narrative to our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs that made up much of the Genesis narrative. Exodus 6:20 notes Amram took to wife his father’s sister Yocheved and she bore him Aaron and Moses. The Torah then says something a bit odd:

This is the same Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, tribe by tribe. It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:26-27).

Most biblical commentators wonder why the Torah awkwardly states that “these are the same Moses and Aaron.” Rashi explains that the reason it is repeated and stipulated that these are the same Moses and Aaron is because the Torah is clarifying that they remain committed to their cause. Quoting Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi writes: They remained in their mission and in their righteousness, from beginning until the end.

It is common for leaders to change, to become different people than they were when they rose to leadership. Most elected officials end up disappointing us, because they change their views, because they don’t live up to campaign promises – many of which were unattainable to begin with, because they might cozy up to lobbyist and special interests, or because they are more concerned with reelection than they are with governing or passing legislation.

So let us pray that the members of the 116th Congress live up to the values found in the books that they placed their hands on as they were sworn into office. Let us pray that they live up to the ideals of the Constitution that they promised to protect. And let us pray that they, like Moses and Aaron, remain the same people they were before the titles “Representative” or “Senator” were place in front of their names. May they still be driven by the same mission; may they live a life full of the same righteousness. And may they be guided by the same principles. May they not become burnt out, or corrupted, or influenced, or bigheaded. Instead, may they be who they were meant to be. These are the same people as they were before, the Torah tells us. May they lead. And may our nation be better off as a result.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Blessing to Lead by Example

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, the Torah portion of Naso. Within that Torah reading, we find the well-known priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26:

Yevarechecha Adonai V’Yishmereicha, Yair Adonai Panav Elecha Vichuneka, Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha v’Yasem lecha Shalom.

May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

priestly benediction handsThis blessing is a part of so many different rituals. These words are a part of the repetition of the Amidah. Parents use these words to bless their children on Friday night during Shabbat dinner. These words are often recited by parents at a brit milah or simchat bat. I bless couples with these words underneath a chuppah at a wedding and I recite these words when I offer a blessing to a bar or bat mitzvah. These words of blessing are integral to who we are as a people. Yet, this blessing is actually three separate blessings, three separate verse.

The first verse, a blessing for protection, is more than that. The protection we seek is not from the outside world, but rather from ourselves. We pray that God will protect us from the worst versions of ourselves. We pray that God protects us from our evil inclinations, from our mistakes, and from our bad decisions.

The imagery of the last two verses of this blessing though is quite revealing and explains the deeper meaning of the blessing. Most translations ignore the imagery and I believe as a result, misunderstand the blessing. For example, while the literal translation is “May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace,” the Jewish Publication Society translates these verses as “The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.” The translation ignores the imagery of God entirely. Yet, the idea of God revealing God’s face to us is a beautiful one.

We read in Deauteronomy 34:10 at the conclusion of the Torah, upon hearing of Moses’ death:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like MOses — whom God singled out, face to face.

Moses had a unique relationship with God. Moses’ saw God’s true face. Metaphorically speaking, we also strive to see God face to face. The blessing is a blessing in which we strive to have a relationship with God just like Moses did. Furthemore, this is a blessing in which we strive to lead just as Moses did. Moses led by example, even when he was not popular, even when he had doubters. Moses led even when he held the minority opinion. This blessing that we offer each other is ultimately a blessing about our actions. This blessing is a blessing about leadership.

May we have a relationship with God just like Moses and may God protect us from ourselves, from our own action and inaction, so that we can lead by example. Doing so will make this world a better place. Doing so will fulfill the last part of this blessing. For if we all lead by example, then we will truly bring peace to this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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