Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Armor for Leadership: Exploring the Breastplate in Parashat Titzaveh


One of my greatest pet peeves is when the media focuses more on the clothing of a leader rather than her actions.  We all remember Condi Rice gaining a great deal of attention for wearing her stunning, sharp Darth Vader-esque pantsuits.  Hillary Clinton also has not escaped the curse of the scrutinized pantsuit! Why can’t we just focus on their performances as leaders instead of how they dress?  Of course, this is often a gendered concern -- men are rarely scrutinized in this way and on this level. That said, there is a kernel of truth to the adage that the clothing makes the man.  Indeed, in this week’s portion, titzaveh, the Torah emphasizes the importance of clothing and its connection to successful leadership.
       In this week’s portion, the Torah focuses a great deal on the wardrobe of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.  One of the signature parts of his wardrobe was the choshen mishpat, the “breastplate of judgement.”  According to tradition, this breastplate had semi-magical powers, providing correct judgments to the high priest.  I think that we can learn two important things about leadership from this piece of clothing -- a metal plate filled with twelve precious stones all representing the 12 tribes of Israel:

  1. 1. According to Ibn Ezra, it is not a coincidence that the piece of clothing used to divine the future and guide decision making fell over the heart of the high priest.  He writes, “Just as the Ark is mentioned first among the furniture of the Tabernacle, the breastpiece is mentioned first among the clothes of the High Priest.  It contains the Urim [precious stones] and is worn opposite the heart, a more honored place on the body than the shoulders.”  In order to be an effective leader, you need to have your congregation close to your heart.  Holding your tribes, your children, your congregants, or your students close to your heart is more important than carrying them on your shoulders or bearing them in mind.  If you do not feel their presence and importance on a deep emotional level, you will not be able to serve them effectively.
  2. The name of the breastplate is quite bizarre.  What does it mean to be a “breastplate of judgment?”  One of Rashi’s explanations for this name is quite beautiful and conveys an important, if uncomfortable truth.  He writes, “Its purpose was to provide atonement for judicial mistakes.”  The High Priest needed protection in order to do his job.  He had to carry great responsibility, and as a human being, he was bound to make mistakes.  Therefore, before he enters the risky business of leading the people Israel, he needs to gird and protect himself -- from his own errors and from the complaints of his followers when he has erred.  A person who exercises meaningful leadership, who takes risks in order to lead a people to live more righteous lives, is going to make errors and enemies.  In order to assume a leadership role, one needs to protect his heart from the pain that inevitably comes from leading a human community.

The breastplate, the choshen mishpat, serves two important, almost contradictory roles for the High Priest.  It at once keeps his followers close to his heart, and it also serves as a shield against the hurt that working with them can cause.  Exercising effective leadership requires a leader to maintain opposing values concomitantly, and holding this balance will often determine whether or not she succeeds.  Let us learn from the example of the High Priest -- achieving real intimacy with the people we seek to lead and change, while protecting ourselves so that we can continue our work with wholeness, peace, and integrity.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Beit Din Without the Beards

An incredible piece on her work in Waterville by our very own Melanie Weiss.

Check out this incredible piece in Lilith Magazine:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach: Wrestling

     This has been a week of wrestling. Wrestling with what it means to create an America where everyone can feel safe and dignified.  Wrestling with an America that does not always measure up to its own ideals and values.  Wrestling with a week of violence in Israel with human victims, aggressors, and heroes that force you to rethink who we are as a people and what is (im)possible in our homeland.  It has been a week of wrestling that will leave no one unscathed, unless of course, you choose to walk away from the struggle.  But to walk away with a struggle for justice in a world of complicated truths and competing values is to relinquish your identity as a child of Israel, the decedent of the world's most famous God-wrestler.
             This week in Parashat Vayishlach, we meet a Jacob fleeing his daemons: the judgment of his father, Isaac, and the rage of his brother Esau.  One night he meets an unlikely adversary in his dream (Genesis 32)

כה  וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו  וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
In a rare moment of solitude, without distractions or the voices of others, Jacob meets an "ish."  Jacob and the ish struggle, and Jacob will not let the ish go until he receives a blessing.  Jacob wins, receives the new name "Israel," or "God-wrestler," and emerges with a serious limp.  Our commentators disagree about who or what the ish was. Literally, ish means "man" or "person."  We often learn that the ish was an angel of God.  In midrash Genesis Rabbah, we are presented with the theory that the ish was a celestial patron of Esau trying to wrest back the birthright from Jacob.  Maimonides rejects the idea that the ish was an angel or an manifestation of Esau's will. He points out the fact that Jacob meets the dawn with a "real" physical limp, and people cannot really wrestle with angels.  Maimonides believes that  Jacob dreamed the ish, and his limp was a physical manifestation of a spiritual struggle.
         Indeed, Maimonides connects the word ish used in this portion with the famous saying from Pirke Avot (2:6),  "In a place where there are no men, be an ish, a man." When you are in a place where no one is a mensch or a good person, strive to be that one good person.  Maimonides asserts that Jacob was wrestling with a real man, and that real man was himself.  He needed to wrestle with himself and his daemons before he could merit the life of a patriarch.  When Jacob succeeds in wrestling with himself, and becomes a mesch, an ish, only then can he earn the name Israel and assume leadership of the Jewish people.
         I am sure that I am not the only rabbi that cannot help but juxtapose the wrestling of Jacob and the ish with the wrestling of Eric Garner with the police officer that killed him.  They are two difficult images that are simultaneously incongruent and bear some basic similarities.  Jacob wrestles with the ish and survives -- he struggled between good and evil, human and divine -- and came out bruised but stronger.  Eric Garner's last moments were spent struggling for his life, as a police office wrestled him to the ground.  He was strangled, and not provided the opportunity to survive a deep spiritual struggle with the Divine. He was a black man who struggled to survive physically in a world that condones  physical violence against him.  Both Jacob and Eric Garner wrestled with their daemons, but only one survived, and was provided with the opportunity to survive, grow, and thrive.  Some of us have the privilege to struggle with our internal adversaries to become the people we want to be -- and others need to fight just to keep breathing.
         So it is our obligation not only to be cognizant of that privilege, but to actually use it for something that helps those who are deprived of our choices.  We have the responsibility not just to recognize and acknowledge, but to wrestle with our own positions in society, our own responsibilities, our own apathy, and the unjust ways in which we take advantage of the many gifts we have received by virtue of birth.  The path of Judaism is a spiritual path that encourages us to wrestle with God and our daemons -- a struggle not for its own sake, but for repairing the deep and manifest brokenness of the world.  We have to struggle to be menschlich when no one else has the courage or the conviction to be a mensch.  
        Menschlikite is not just about being sweet and doing small mitzvot that soothe the conscience.  That is not the type of humanity that Pirke Avot challenges us to assume.  It is about confronting difficult truths, and acting in a way consistent with the high standards set forth for us by Torah.  It means giving a painful amount of our wealth away to those who cannot afford a decent defense.  It means devoting a painful amount of our time to challenge the laws and systemic injustices that terrorize people of color in our society.  It means showing extra kindness, understanding, and hospitality those who confront struggles beyond what we have the capability of imagining.  Being a mensch is about living with enough integrity and love to soften hearts harded by various forms of oppression (whether as victims, perpetrators, or both).  Through a leadership of love, personal integrity, and care, we must break hearts open to allow for healing and transformational change.
        One last vignette.  The past few weeks have felt hopeless and fraught in so many ways.  One point of light that has dispelled the darkness is the example of Mahmoud Abu Khadir.  His cousin was brutally murdered by Jewish extremists on his way home from mosque this summer, and those who perpetrated the crime have not yet received fair or equal punishment.  He happened to be at the Rami Levi supermarket this week when a Palestinian terrorist started to kill Jewish shoppers.  He was the one of the first people at the scene, and provided whatever kind of care and comfort he could to those who were wounded.  When a grateful and somewhat surprised Israeli, Jewish reporter asked him how he found it within himself to provide healing to Jews after what happened to his cousin this summer, his response was instructive, "That’s how I was taught to behave by my family...When someone is wounded, you help them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from." He added: “I was raised in a good family. I’m not at war. At work, when I see something like this, I have to help. It’s a matter of education: I believe that tomorrow the wounded man will see someone else and go help him. I hope that one day the situation will change and we will no longer have incidents such as this. But force brings more force and peace brings peace.” I'm sure that Mahmoud Abu Khadir had to wrestle on some level with his pain and living up to the values with which he was raised, but he succeeded, and was the ish that our world needed.
 ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no mensches, be a mensch

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party! December 20, 2014

Get ready for Chanukkah at Beth Israel Congregation!  

December 20, 2014 5:30-7:30 pm

We need your help in order to make our chanukkah party a success.  Please volunteer to help!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Love and Leadership: Lessons from Abraham's Legacy

           Is love an essential component of leadership?  Are our leaders required to love us or be loving people?  While not every leader in history has been a loving person, Abraham teaches us about the superiority of exercising leadership with love.  This week's portion, Chayyei Sarah, describes the deaths of the mother and father of the Jewish faith, Abraham and Sarah.  In the aftermath of their deaths, we learn a great deal about their legacies and characters.  After Sarah's death, Abraham is greatly grieved, but eventually marries another woman, Keturah.  According the rabbinic tradition, Keturah is a woman we have met before: Hagar.  She acquires the new name of Keturah, according to Rashi, because her righteous deeds adorn her like a crown.  Despite being banished from her home by Sarah (enthusiastically) and Abraham (reluctantly), she chooses to return to Abraham, marry him, and bear him more children.  Once Isaac is grown and Sarah has departed, Abraham tries to bring solace and healing to his relationship with Hagar.  Through love, he mends a deep hurt, and creates a new world with Keturah.
           We also learn in this portion, that after Abraham's death, Ishmael and Isaac reunite to accompany their father to his eternal resting place.  Both Ishmael and Isaac were sons who endured great pain at the hands of their father.  Isaac was almost sacrificed at the hands of his father, and Ishmael was banished from his home as a small boy with insufficient resources to survive.  And yet, despite the pain they endured, they found a way to come together and show their father the respect he deserved as a flawed parent and a legendary leader.
          What was it that made Abraham so extraordinary?  Close reading of the text gives us some clues.  My JTS Dean, Rabbi Danny Nevins, brought some extraordinary features of this text to light for me.  When Abraham first leaves Haran, he refers to God as Elohei Shamim, God of heaven.  However, when Eliezer is sent to find a wife for Isaac, he refers to God as Elohei Shamaim va'aretz: God of heaven and earth.  How has the world changed between these two events?  Over the course of Abraham's journey from Haran to the Land of Israel, he brings God to earth through the teaching of Torah.  Both he and Sarah, "make souls in Haran," teaching Torah and spreading the faith of Israel.  He serves food to strangers, and puts his own life on the line to contend for strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Through his examples of hospitality, strength, and audacity, he brings a moral voice to the desert.
          The famous Hasidic Maggid, Dov Bear takes the exemplary nature of Abraham's life one step further, "Abraham's entire body became a chariot for the divine qualities of love, and he caused all creates to become accustomed to God's divinity and love.  So that love could exist even in the land, and not only in heaven." An essential component of transformative Jewish leadership is serving as a vessel and a conduit of God's love from heaven to earth.  When you show love and care to the people you hope to lead, you form relationships strong enough to endure the challenges of serious leadership: transforming how people think, breaking bad habits, encouraging others to take productive risks, losing a familiar way of life, unearthing difficult systemic problems, raising difficult questions, and working hard to create a better world.
          Leadership is often described as a confrontational affair.  American politics after all has become something of a blood sport.  But a position does not make someone a leader, nor does passion for a cause.  Leadership requires the delicate and difficult work of leading people to become better versions of themselves, and coming together to fix deep-seeded problems and complete Creation.  Without love, this process is significantly more difficult, if not impossible.  Love for the people you seek to change can be difficult to muster and express, but at least in a Jewish context, it is a core component of cultivating a strong, transformational, covenanted community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pilgrimage in a Tourist Age: The Case of Birthright Israel: Monday, Nov. 17 at 5:00 pm

Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of young American Jews have visited Israel on an all-expense-paid 10-day pilgrimage-tour known as Birthright Israel. The most elaborate of the state-supported homeland tours that are cropping up all over the world, this half-billion-dollar venture seeks to deepen the ties binding the Jewish Diaspora to Israel. But unlike Jewish pilgrimages of millennia past, Birthright Israel adopts and adapts the practices of modern mass tourism. What happens when a state looks to tourism to create a new pilgrimage ritual for the 21st century?

Next Monday, in conjunction with my seminar on Pilgrimage and the Jewish Studies program, we are hosting a lecture by Shaul Kelner from Vanderbilt University on "Pilgrimage in a Tourist Age: The Case of Birthright Israel."

The lecture will take place Monday, Nov. 17 at 5:00 pm in Parker Reed Room, Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center and will be followed by a dinner/discussion. If you would like to attend (open to all and free of charge), please RSVP by today, 12 November, to David Freidenreich, email: david.freidenreich@colby.edu.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Colby-Bowdoin-Bates-Beth Israel-Beth El Shabbaton: November 7-8, 2014 at Colby College

Join us at the second annual Colby-Bowdoin-Bates-

November 7-8, 2014

Join us for Kabbalat Shabbat led by the Jewish bluegrass band, Jewgrass.  RSVP on facebook.  

Schedule of Events:

Friday, November 7, 2014
  • Catered dinner in the Colby College Alumni Center (Parker Reed Room) at 6:00 pm
  • Kabbalat Shabbat services with Jewgrass at 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 8, 2014
  • Prayer hike at Colby College at 10:00 am.  (Meet outside the president's house on Mayflower Hill - parking in Marylow lot.)
  • Open Shabbat lunch at Rabbi Isaacs' and Mel's apartment at 12:30 pm (Williams Dorm in the Hillside Complex.)
  • Shabbat singing and text study at 1:45 pm (Williams Dorm in Hillside Complex)
  • Klezmer Kabbalat Shabbat led by Rabbi Sruli Dresner and Lisa Mayer at 5:30 pm. (Pugh Center.)

Sponsors: Colby, Bowdoin, and Bates Hillels.  Beth Israel (Waterville) and Beth El (Augusta). Pugh Community Board and Committee for Educational and Cultural Events.