Monday, January 20, 2014

On Leadership and Rites of Passage

The day went spectacularly well.

Toby was beyond nervous from the moment he awoke until the service began. "I'm shaking," he told me as he sat on a stool at the island, still groggy, but gearing up for the day ahead. We all gave him hugs and assurance that it was normal, not that that helped.

But once he got his suit on (and I performed a Super Mama feat of tieing an Eldredge knot in his tie) he started to feel his power, and the anxiety eased up a bit.

By the time the service started he was ready. And a quarter of the way into the service, when Mark and I, his brothers, and his grandmothers joined him on the bimah to "pass the Torah down through the generations," he sidled up to me and said, "I'm not even nervous!"

It was an incredibly beautiful service. I gave it my all, and having been working on my voice over the past several months with a wonderful voice coach, my all was pretty damn wonderful. Toby was so prepared and blew everyone away with his poise and calm and ease during the service. He taught us about the qualities of capable leaders and he chanted Torah like a pro.

A favorite moment, and one that really demonstrates how at ease he felt was when leaning low over the Torah, he began to chant, his first word coming out a squeak. "Oh! Sorry! My voice cracked!" he said, looking up at us all, a smile on his face. And then, he turned back to his work, started over and did a beautiful job. It was stupendous. What 13 year old boy is that comfortable with a cracking voice with 250 observers? We all chuckled, but I think we all were impressed that it didn't unnerve him.

The day was so good. Start to finish. All smooth. All full of love and friends and family. A boy who became a man before our eyes.

Here's his drash, or sermon, his teaching about the portion of the Torah he chanted in Hebrew for us. Appropriate for MLK Day.

Toby's Drash

My Torah portion is called Yitro. It’s from the book of Exodus, Chapter 18, verses 13 through 24. Last week’s Torah portion was full of awesome events: the Israelites got out of Egypt by crossing the Sea of Reeds, and then they spent a while wandering in the desert. While they were in the desert Moses was starting to teach them more about Judaism and every time he told them another thing about G-d, they probably got a little more scared. It was kind of chaotic.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, AKA Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes into the wilderness to meet up with Moses and the Israelites. When Yitro gets there Moses pulls him inside a tent and tells him about the plagues, the Sea of Reeds, and the manna, in other words, about all the miracles that G-d bestowed on the Israelites. Yitro, who is a priest of Midian, is astonished by the news and is also very joyful. He offers a sacrifice to G-d and then they have a gigantic feast.

The next day, Yitro observes that the Israelites are bringing all of their problems to Moses who acts as a judge for them. Yitro sees that Moses does this all day long and he tells Moses, “You need to find some people to share the burden with you. You have to choose some capable people to be the judges of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. These judges have to fear G-d, be trustworthy, and despise ill-gotten gain. Tell them that they can solve the people’s minor issues while you solve the major ones. This is so you don’t tire yourself out and make bad decisions.”

Moses abides by what his father-in-law says and hires the people to be the judges. And then, Yitro leaves.

So, I’ve been wondering, why was this parsha named Yitro? I think Yitro had as big an impact on our heritage as anyone else in the Torah. Yitro was a great leader and that’s why Moses listened to him. Yitro had knowledge and experience handling large groups of people, something that Moses needed to work on. It’s a good thing that Moses listened to him.

So, what makes a capable leader? How would Moses know one when he saw one?

According to Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, a capable leader is someone who is “wealthy, [a person] of means.” He thought that if you’re rich, people’s bribes won’t obstruct your judgment. Personally, I don’t agree with this. Whether or not you have money may not be a deciding factor in your choices. What I believe is more important is what kind of person you are.

Nachmanides, another medieval Jewish scholar, said, “a capable person is wise, alert and fair.” Ibn Ezra, also a rabbi from the middle ages, said that capable people are “people who have the strength to tolerate without fear the hardship of those who criticize their decisions.” I agree with Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra because I have studied three different leaders and I’ve found they share many of these characteristics.

Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian people to independence. He was a Hindu, but he also studied the other major religions. He practiced non-violent protest and led Indian people to independence from the British Empire. He was persistent and believed that if he and the Indian people believed in themselves they could get equal rights for all of India. He was thrown in jail many times because he was protesting something that the British government did not want. But did that stop him? No. Gandhi is a great example of a leader who…would not take no for an answer, stayed focused on the big picture, and was willing to risk everything for the cause.

Abraham Lincoln gave slaves in America their independence. He was one of the most inspiring of all of the presidents. Lincoln once said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Justice was very important to President Lincoln and he was a great example of a leader who… knows what’s good for his people and…makes the hard and sometimes unpopular call.

To me, one of the greatest people who has ever lived was Martin Luther King, Jr.   He stood up for equal rights for the black community. He truly knew how to motivate people and inspired them to get involved with his great speeches. Also, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King modeled a nonviolent approach to accomplish change. That made the biggest impact on all of America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an excellent example of a leader who inspires others to take responsibilities, who did not crack under pressure, and was a truly great speaker who knew how to motivate people.

It bears noting that all three of these men had a strong faith. They believed in something greater than themselves. This too, is common amongst many great leaders.

In thinking about leadership, I also looked inside myself to consider the qualities, skills and experiences I have that make me a good leader. For my mitzvah project, and honestly, just because it’s so much fun and I love it, I volunteer every week at Pastures, the preschool I used to attend. I help serve food and I push them on the swings. They are so dang cute! I lead them in games and teach them songs. I read them books, sometimes the same book twice. When I’m there I know to keep my calm and to always have a positive attitude. Working with those kids and the fantastic teachers I am learning how to be more patient and how to be persistent, especially when they don’t listen to me the first or second or third time.

In another favorite part of my life, I lead people in different games I play, such as Dungeons & Dragons and League of Legends. In those games, to be a good leader, I think about how people would react to the plans I make and I also think about how those plans would affect the game in the long run. I have to be on the ball, stay focused and not zone out. I have to remember the big picture and not get lost in the details. My greatest leadership qualities are my true heart, I do what’s best for the team, and I’m willing to attempt the impossible, or at least the unlikely.

In conclusion, I believe the reason this portion is called Yitro is because Yitro’s influence played a very big part in Moses’ history and thus, in our history, as Jews. Yitro offered Moses the key to being a better leader. And Moses accepted it. It’s a sign of Moses’s potential as a great leader that he listened to Yitro, a man wiser and more experienced than himself, and took his advice. If he hadn’t, Moses would’ve wasted his time and energy on things that were not important for him to take care of. And perhaps we would still be wandering around in the desert to this day.

Today I will read Torah in honor of Ben-Tzion Miller.
Ben-Tzion was born in 1931.
He lived in Latvia with his parents Hana and Shalom.
He died in the Shoah at Plavinas in 1941. He was 9 or 10 years old.
He never had the opportunity to read from the Torah.

1 comment:

catcheson said...

Are you sure that he's really just thirteen? I guess I will just have to admit that he is not a toddler any more. His thoughtfulness, introspection, and good humor made me smile, and made me think. Pretty good leadership qualities. Thanks, Toby, and congratulations!.