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.