Monthly Archives: December 2008

A Time to Go

Rabbi Jeff Salkin is curating The Modern Men’s Commentary on the Torah, and asked me to write an entry on Parashat Vayelekh — my bar mitzvah portion. Here it is.

The Lord said to Moses: “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him” (DEUTERONOMY 31:14)

Looking over the assembly, a cold shudder must have swept Moses as he said these words: “One hundred and twenty years am I today, and I will not be allowed to come and go any longer, since the boss told me that I am not allowed to keep going with you.” Promoted into retirement just before the project he worked his entire adult life for came to fruition, the courage to stand before others and say these words is unfathomable. No, this time Moses did not choose to argue, as he did in the past. No, Moses did not decide to lash out and take the ship down with him. He understood the first rule of Jewish leadership: It’s not all about you.
Many who aspire to become leaders do so out of the belief of entitlement; feeling smarter, stronger, faster than others, these candidates seek to garner the trust of others by proving that they are the ones who can solve the challenge ahead. They accept applause with smiles and self-congratulations, and stand tall when someone mentions their name in praise.
Moses, on the other hand, understood that Jewish leadership is a burden to carry and not a prize that goes to the victor. God doesn’t choose the strongest, or the fastest. God doesn’t choose Abraham for his riches in Haran; God doesn’t confer the new name “Israel” upon Jacob until he has sent all his goods to Esau, and humbles himself before him; God doesn’t choose Joseph until he is in the depths of the dungeon. Jewish leadership, therefore, is the acceptance that in this world of hevel hevelim (“vanity of vanities,” Ecclesiastes 1:1) we might be asked to choose the collective over ourselves, even when it means giving up our own chance at contented happiness.
The task of the Jewish leader, therefore, is not to finalize the project, and not to accomplish the mission – but rather to build the platform and create the structure that will enable other leaders to arise and continue to better the Jewish people. Moses learns this important lesson twice: First from Jethro, and now directly from God. Moses is not to lead the people to the Promised Land; his role is to build the people and provide them with the infrastructure to lead themselves.
“You might not complete the task,” we read in Pirke Avot (the “Ethics of the Fathers”) “but neither are you free to avoid it.” On that day, looking over the land of Israel, Moses saw that his obligation was complete. “Joshua will go before you,” he told his people – and then he left the scene and disappeared, alone.

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Leadership the Jewish Way

Jewish Leadership–that is, what makes a leader in the Jewish tradition–has been on my mind a lot lately, as PresenTense grows and my primary goal is to grow leaders within our organization.
In a drash for the Wexner newsletter, I write:

Risk-taking and humility, mixed with a boldness forged by a passion for social justice—the recipe the Torah suggests makes a good leader—are the marks of a social entrepreneur. A contemporary term, but an ancient concept, social entrepreneurship is the practice of seeking to solve problems through the launch of risk-taking ventures with few initial resources and large aspirations. Our People were built by these types of individuals, and our State was developed thanks to the pioneering attitudes of their Halutznik ancestors. In short, the Jewish People has built and sustained itself thanks to the risks and the associated rewards of those who threw themselves all-in for the sake of the greater collective.
The training of social entrepreneurs, and thereby leaders, should therefore respect the place of risk and possible failure in the production equation. By rewarding those who have succeeded against all odds, and understanding that contemporary and sustained on-the-ground success, as opposed to models of leadership recognizable to the previous generation, should determine communal decision, our community will be able to better provide leadership to tackle our future challenges.

Read on–and I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Dusk into Dawn

Investing in a time of great uncertainty is never easy–and yet crucial for future growth. As such, Aharon and I wrote an oped for Haaretz, arguing that thanks to the digital revolution’s impact on the means of production, investment should be primarily in human capital:

With digital technologies becoming increasingly sophisticated, and our actions freed from many of the restrictions of time and space, as we are able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any hour, the elements of the equation at the core of nonprofit success have shifted. In particular, the same technological conditions that have proved enabling for hyper-bootstrapped start-ups, in the business sector, have also enabled nonprofits to do much more in terms of building their brand for much less money. In addition, the material expenses of programming have gone down – making it easier to package the content of a nonprofit’s mission.
For example, through its online platform, the Obama presidential campaign was able to leverage every two paid field organizers to manage 50 volunteers – and used that same platform to collect more money than was ever raised for a presidential race, with a fraction of the effort. With costs of programming and communicating dropping, time – the time and attention people invest in a project – has become the currency of most value. And therefore it is the ability to capture attention and muster time – to recruit and manage volunteers through strategically trained staff – that in many cases will determine whether an effort will have an impact on the world or not.
This shift in the relative weight of resources should change the rules of the game for those who give as well. Digital-age philanthropic investments in nonprofits should focus on giving them the ability to deploy more hours in the field, paradoxically increasing the staff part of “overhead” that so often is targeted for cuts.

Tell us what you think.

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