Parashat Ki Tissa 5778

Rabbi Richard Jacobi – 2 March 2018

When I began my research for this thought, I came across a Limmud D’var Torah posted ten years ago by Maureen Kendler. Maureen sadly died a few days ago after a short illness. She was a wonderful teacher and human being, who is widely and very sadly missed. This is dedicated to her memory – zichronah livrachah.

What do a golden calf, a pantomime of good triumphing (just!) over evil, and Leo Baeck College have in common? They all warrant our attention this week and they all provide valuable lessons about leadership. The golden calf is one of the most well know and vivid stories in the Torah, and is part of this week’s portion. On Wednesday night and Thursday, we celebrate the minor festival of Purim in major ways – fancy dress, binge drinking, booing and cheering as the megillah of Esther is read. This Shabbat, a number of Liberal, Reform and Masorti congregations will welcome ‘ambassadors’ from Leo Baeck College – students, staff and faculty – to share their learning and relationship to a College will contributes to the heart and soul of Progressive Judaism in this country and around the world.

Maureen Kendler taught: “There is a curious innocence about Aharon, an unworldliness in his narrative. This incident is often used as proof-text for the unsuitability of Aharon as leader: he is simply not tough enough.” She talked about how and why Aharon never challenged the people or told them not to build their representation of a god and suggests that Moses would not have held back from doing so. I am reminded of the difference in a school between the Headteacher and the Deputy Head. The second in command can be the ‘good cop’, knowing that the responsibility and authority of being the ‘bad cop’ sits with the Head. These roles cannot be reversed and a Headteacher, or Chief Executive, or Rabbi, cannot place being liked before providing the leadership that their school, organisation, or community needs, but does not always want. Some excellent Deputies will not make excellent or even good Headteachers. There is also no shame in staying as a number two – it is an important leadership role, because no leader can survive if they seek to lead alone. Leadership only works when the leader has followers, so a good deputy also models followership.

Purim sees unlikely – in the context of biblical texts – leaders coming to the fore. While a case can be made for Vashti’s leadership, it is the manner by which Esther and Mordechai work together to provide leadership in a crisis that is a theme of the story. Esther wins a beauty contest, and is able to influence the behaviour of her new husband, the King, through taking risks and speaking up. The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ is used, often glibly, without acknowledging the risk that such a truth teller is taking. Megillat Esther shows the risk paying off, which isn’t always the case, but reminds us that we owe it to ourselves, our consciences, and the wisdom of our traditions, to speak up for what we believe to be right and true.

Further, when someone else does speak up, putting their head above the parapet, we must not be bystanders, ready only to wring our hands and comment “How sad!” if they are shot down. When one person speaks up, the quicker others stand with them, the more likely a positive outcome becomes. Here again, it is not only the number one who leads. It takes every bit as much courage to be the second head above the parapet! Followership is also sometimes leadership.

Finally, Leo Baeck College is a rabbinical school, not a yeshiva. The College faculty and staff, and I am honoured to be a very part-time part of its team, seek to develop leaders for Jewish communities. While some lead in the education field, the primary programme develops rabbis. We help each individual to come through a process of rabbinic formation that includes book learning and skills development. Our new generation of rabbis have a different leadership challenge to those who went before them. They cannot simply be the “rabbi and teacher in Israel” ordination states, they have to be able to lead communities by varied means suited to the rapidly and radically changing world we all now inhabit. This requires different leadership to that of Moses or Aharon, or Esther or Mordechai. However, they can take forward some lessons from previous leaders, and we seek to help them learn how to adapt and apply such lessons. Ultimately, the teaching of Rabbi Zusya applies – to worry about the question “Why were you not Zusya?” We cannot make ourselves like Moses or Aharon, for that would be idolatry like the golden calf. We cannot seek to copy Esther or Mordechai, for we are not faced by Haman, but by modern and different threats. No-one else can teach like Maureen Kendler z”l taught. Therefore, at Leo Baeck College, we seek to train each emerging rabbi to be their best selves as often as they can. If you are still reading this, and you’re not a rabbinic student, the challenge and opportunity is the same – to be your best self as often as you can! I wish you success and brave failure in this – none of us can ever succeed all the time – but it is better to keep working at being you and fail than to seek to be someone else, except when in Purim fancy dress!

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