As Jewish professionals, we strive to infuse our leadership styles with Jewish wisdom. But, with so many texts, both written and living, and with pressure to help our organizations find success, what does it mean to lead Jewishly in real life? Throughout my service-learning experiences, I have searched for an answer to this question. As a fellow, I have made the Jewish community of Cincinnati my classroom. I am learning to become a Jewish leader not only through academic study, in the form of a course in Rabbinic Leadership, but also through practical experience working within the community, mentored by its Jewish leaders. I am grateful for this unique opportunity to grow as a leader through my fellowships at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and at Rockdale Temple.
Jewish thought provides numerous insights into leadership. Rabbi Isaac Luria, a sixteenth century mystic, gave us the concept of tzimtzum—contraction. Luria taught that God has the power to be absolutely everywhere, taking up all the world’s space, time, and energy. In order to make room for all of creation to exist and experiment, to grow and thrive, God had to contract, creating a holy window. This holy window is where we are able to dwell as God’s partners in creation. Within this space, what we create meets what God creates. This is also true of great leaders. Leaders with true vision know that it is not about them and all the amazing things they can do but rather about inspiring their communities and then stepping back, creating a holy window—room for others to lead.
Our tradition’s greatest leader, Moses, was also described as being the most humble. When Moses was a fugitive from Pharaoh’s kingdom, he was given the opportunity to try his hand at shepherding, only to discover that he was a natural. If you have ever spent time on a farm or, in my case, as a participant on a Birthright Israel trip, then you might have learned something counter-intuitive about herding sheep. On the last day of my first trip to Israel, I found myself at a “biblical experience” tourist attraction in the Judean hills. Our guide took pleasure at putting us, American Jewish college students, into a pen of sheep, one by one, to attempt leading them. We were not naturals. I think I stood in front of the pack calling out something like, “Here sheepy sheepies! Come here sheep!” But, alas, the sheep did not come. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong! Were these Hebrew-speaking sheep? After watching enough participants fail miserably, our guide stepped into the pen and demonstrated the correct way to lead. A shepherd does not lead from the front of the pack but from within, or even from behind.
Tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud gives us a later tale of Moses’ leadership. The scene begins on Mount Sinai. Below, the anxious Israelites are starting to build a golden calf in their leader’s absence, but high above them the scene is serene. Moses sits patiently by God’s side while God writes out every letter of the Torah by hand, decorating some letters with elaborate crowns. Moses acknowledges that he will never understand what these crowns signify, but has faith that later generations will be able to make meaning of them.
Suddenly, Moses travels forward through time to the first century of the Common Era. This desert wanderer from ancient Egypt finds himself in a rabbinic house of study while the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, explains the meaning of the crowns. The Rabbis’ culture, the words they speak, and the lessons they teach are all totally foreign to Moses. He feels out of place and takes a seat in the back row, traditionally reserved for the weakest of students. Just then, someone calls out to the teacher, asking for the source of the material being studied. Rabbi Akiva turns to the class and says, “This is a tradition given to Moses at Sinai.” Moses is pleased. His legacy is just as it should be. It is not exactly how he left it, in his own words, or even how he could ever have imagined it turning out. Given space—a holy window—others collaborated and took the opportunity to create all of Jewish thought and civilization from the foundation Moses gave them.
Moses practiced tzimtzum and led from behind. He gave the people Torah but left room for interpretation and progress. Moses opened a holy window for others to fill, empowering generations of students and teachers to go forward, inspire, and allow others to lead. He was humble enough to know that his mind alone could never achieve what many minds together would.
I have found that the Jewish Foundation Fellowship provides a leadership model in Moses’ style. The Foundation shepherds its student fellows and the communal institutions we serve by providing support and guiding values. With the leadership of our mentors, we fellows are free to begin creating our roles as Jewish leaders. As a fellow at Rockdale Temple, my mentor, Rabbi Coran, listens to my vision and passions and directs me toward projects that I am able to take ownership of. I am given the space to be creative, take chances, and even learn from my mistakes.
As a community of Jewish leaders, many of us have undoubtedly found ourselves stifled under well-intentioned leadership that interpreted the crowns along with the letters before ever handing them over to us. I am also certain that many of us have been blessed to work with leaders who led from behind, who contracted their own power so we could have the learning experience of bearing responsibility, who gave us the support of Torah’s letters but left us the freedom to interpret the crowns for ourselves. May we continue providing those we lead with a holy window, the space to find their own voices, while inspiring and supporting them in their quest to fill it with something amazing.