Friday, March 13, 2015

Changing Communities: Wisdom from Parashat Va-yak'hel-Pikudei

             "Well why didn't you tell me sooner?!"  Anyone involved in community leadership has probably encountered these words before.  I have heard these words and uttered them myself on several occasions.  You are trying to create a movement or an initiative, and the individuals you are trying to recruit are offended that they weren't invited to participate in the envisioning of the project.   One of the first lessons you learn in leadership is that the process is just as important as the product.  This idea is conveyed in an important way in this week's Torah portion, Va-Yak'hel.
            The first verse of the portion is:

1Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.אוַיַּקְהֵל משֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂת אֹתָם:

According to Nahmanides, Moses made a point to invite the entire community: women, men, and children.  Anyone involved in the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle, needed to be there to hear instruction and received guidance.  The B'khor Shor takes this idea a step further.  Why does everyone need to be called together from the moment that Moses descends from Mount Sinai? "So that no one would be able to complain, 'We did not have a chance to contribute, because we were not told until those who knew had already contributed everything necessary.'"
                This is an incredibly salient point that is applicable to modern life.  If you don't bring in all necessary partners at the beginning of a project, not only do you risk leaving out an important voice, you also alienate critical investors in your project.  In the process of changing communities and societies, all potential partners need to be included in the envisioning process.  Then, even if people choose to opt our or not contribute as you had hoped, they were provided the opportunity.  When individuals feel dignified and included from the beginning of an endeavor, only then can you hope to create change effectively within a community or cultivate a community that can have a broader impact.
                There are two other important details in this portion about leadership.  The term va-yak'hel is a hifil verb in Hebrew.  It is a verb that is causative, but not coercive.  Rashi picks up on this fine point and derives some important wisdom from it:

Moses called… to assemble: Heb. וַיַּקְהֵל. [He assembled them]. This [word] is a hiph’il [causative] expression [i.e., causing someone to do something], because one does not assemble people with [one’s] hands [i.e., directly], but they are assembled through one’s speech.ויקהל משה: ... והוא לשון הפעיל, שאינו אוסף אנשים בידים, אלא הן נאספים על פי דבורו...

In order to bring people together for a critical discussion that requires heartfelt participation, folks cannot be coerced.  Moses did not assemble the people Israel with a staff or a forceful hand, but rather with the call and timbre of his voice.  Rashi emphasizes the importance of speech in community building: its power, its importance, and its limitations.  When you want to create and maintain a covenanted community, participants need to be invited and attracted by your message, not compelled by force or guilt.
           Lastly, I have always been moved by the fact that when Moses descends from the mountain after receiving revelation, he is wearing a veil.  His face shines so brightly after receiving the Truth of Torah that it is blinding to other human eyes.  Moses cannot let his light outshine or overpower those he is tasked with leading.  Sometimes leaders need to pull parts of themselves back, not out of shame or lack of confidence, but just to make room for others to speak, contribute, and shine.  Bringing the entirety of your truth to every encounter may allow you to act with authenticity, but it can also limit the contributions of others.  As leaders, we need to provide illumination to those who follow us, but its brightness should attract and not repel, inspire and not shut down.  

May we find inspiration from the leadership skills that Moses exhibits in this week's portion: including all partners from the beginning of a project, attracting them with the quality and attractiveness of our message, and holding back just enough to allow others to grow and shine.  

Shabbat Shalom!!