3rd of Tammuz

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A young woman is going door to door collecting information for a census. As she reaches the front door of one particular house she hesitates before knocking. Emanating from the house are strange noises, shouts and screams and the sounds of smashing glass. Eventually she plucks up the courage and knocks on the door. The noises stop and a dishevelled looking man opens the door, his glasses askew, his shirt ripped and in general looking a little the worse for wear.

“I’m sorry to disturb,” she says to him, “I am here for the census. Are you the master of the house?” . “You know what,” he replies. “Can you come back in five minutes? We are just deciding that very question!”.

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In last week’s Torah reading (June 12th) we see play-by-play a power struggle for leadership of the Jewish people. Moshe has been appointed by Hashem, as has Aaron his brother, yet their first cousin Korach is unhappy. He feels he has been overlooked for a well deserved position at the top.

Korach approaches Moshe with his complaint, “Rav lachemYou’ve taken too much! … u’madua titnaseu al kehal Hashem … Why have you promoted yourself to be above the congregation of Hashem?” With Korach are his supporters, Datan and Aviram, On ben Peles and two hundred and fifty others. Moshe of course does his best to appease them and calm things down, but in the end it is G-d who steps in to quash the rebellion and punish Korach and his fellow rebels. Korach, Datan and Aviram and their families are swallowed alive by the ground they stand on, and the two hundred and fifty others are consumed by fire. On ben Peles got lucky, his wife managed to keep her husband home and out of trouble. The people are now under no illusion as to who G-d did or did not appoint. The debate is over and Moshe is the man in charge.

Moshe in general is seen as the paradigm of good Jewish leadership, someone we should all be trying to emulate. I would like to focus on two of his leadership characteristics today, two traits which helped Moshe become the most revered leader in Jewish history:

One: The care of the individual – however seemingly unimportant they might be, or however much they have angered G-d – Moshe was there to pray for them and to protect them. Every single individual, great or small, received his heartfelt love and care.

Two: The desire to encourage leadership in others, to empower others to fulfil their true potential, without jealousy or fear of competition.

Let us look at the first aspect, his care of the individual. There is a famous Midrashic anecdote about Moshe as a shepherd and how he cared for one lamb which had strayed while seeking water. Moshe patiently followed the lamb, let it drink and then lovingly carried it back to the flock.  Says the Midrash: When the Almighty saw how tenderly Moses had dealt with the lamb, He said: “Because you had pity on the lamb and showed how kind you were, you shall merit to lead my people Israel.” This is truly how he acted in his dealings with every individual – each was equally important to Moshe, a true leader. He was ready to defend his people even to his own detriment.

[Note how Avraham, defending Sodom and the other four cities, prays for the salvation of the cities based on the righteous – tzaddikim – who might inhabit them. Moshe prays for everyone, saint or sinner]

Moses’ second quality was the desire to encourage leadership in others, without fear of competition or jealousy. We see this very clearly when G-d appoints seventy elders to “share” his vision and prophecy. Joshua was shocked at some of the prophecy he heard (foretelling Moses’ death without entering Israel) and relayed it to Moshe – who simply responded “u’mi yitein kol am Hashem neviim – if only all the people could be prophets!” Moshe had no complex about being in charge alone – he wanted to create leaders, to empower others and to share leadership.

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While we discuss Jewish leadership I would like to share a few moments with you talking about a contemporary Jewish world leader who shared those two important qualities in which Moshe excelled.

This Tuesday, June 15, is the 16th histalkut (Yahrzeit) of  my teacher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, ztz”l – known to us simply as  “the Rebbe.”

From 1951 to 1994 the Rebbe was devoted, every waking minute of every day caring for world Jewry, whether it was a president of Israel, a NASA scientist, a little girl having trouble at school, or a chief rabbi. The huge sacks of mail delivered daily were a fascinating mix of  letters from every sector and segment of society, from every country, from people of every level of religiosity and of every age and in every language. In the long lines waiting for an appointment or a brief moment together you could find yourself next to the Dean of a Yeshiva or a prisoner on parole, a bar mitzva boy waiting for a blessing, a barren couple hoping for a miracle, an IDF paratrooper, or the Mayor of  New York.

Over the decades many famous people have paid tribute to the Rebbe in their own way and many spoke of his achievements.

Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisroel, a towering figure in Jewish scholarship, says the Rebbe almost single-handedly revived the image, and self-image, of world Jewry in the 20th century.

Professor Lawrence Schiffman, head of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University said, “He showed the Jewish community that it was possible to revive and rebuild – after assimilation, persecution or both – and that this could be done on a tremendous scale.”

But one comment that is very striking and that deals with the leadership skills we have touched on today is from Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Lord Jonathan Sacks, who says the Rebbe is the one who convinced him to become a rabbi.

“When I was privileged for the first occasion to meet the Rebbe, to walk into his presence, to share a conversation with him, I discovered something quite stunning. I had met dozens, dozens of other leaders, and from every other leader I had asked questions and I had received answers. The Rebbe was the only one who asked me questions, beginning with: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?” At that interview I understood that the Rebbe was not interested in creating followers.  He was interested in creating leaders…

I had just obtained my rabbinic ordination and I went to the Rebbe to ask his advice as to what to do next. Should I go back to my first career as a teacher of secular philosophy or should I pursue my real ambition which was to be a barrister? And I had been led to believe that one presented choices to the Rebbe and he said either this or that. Well, he said neither. He said, “You have to become a rabbi. You have to become a rabbi in Anglo-Jewry…”

Day after day, meeting after meeting and letter after letter, these two leadership qualities were always at the fore: the caring and compassion for every single individual, and the constant drive to release the latent potential of those he corresponded with, empowering them to do more, to reach one step higher.

I would like to close with a story which I feel illustrates these points quite clearly, and gives us a small glimpse into the Rebbe’s far-reaching vision. In 1968 headlines were made in America as  Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress. However, due to political pressure and prevalent attitudes she was appointed to a committee where she could have only minor influence.  Despite her deep desire to help New York’s inner city, to champion the poor and deprived, she was assigned to the Agriculture Committee, a decision she was deeply disappointed about.  She felt powerless to achieve the goals for which she had entered the political arena.

Shortly afterwards she received a surprise call to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who recognized that she was very hurt by the decision. “What should I do?” she asked the Rebbe, “I am hurt and upset.” Gently the Rebbe spoke to her of the real opportunity her new position afforded her, helping her achieve her goals. He told her that G-d had given her a great blessing.  She would now be in a position to deal with the huge food surplus, and use it to help the poor and disadvantaged she cared so deeply for.

And so she did.

Once in Congress, (although serving on different committees) she was one of those instrumental in two important food programs helping those less well off and unable to afford daily necessities:  she helped ensure the expansion of the Food Stamp Program providing subsidized food for those who needed, and was a driving force behind the WIC program enabling pregnant and nursing mothers to get the food supplements they needed for healthy pregnancies and healthy children. In last year alone, 2009, over 9 million people received these valuable WIC  benefits.

When Chisholm retired she spoke about the role she played in setting up these programs, and her motivation for doing so:  “A rabbi who is an optimist taught me that what you may think is a challenge is really a gift from G‑d,” she said, “and if poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi had vision.”

The Rebbe saw the distress this woman was in,  helped inspire and motivate her to deal with the challenges she faced, and to become a key player in helping millions of underprivileged families across the US receive their daily necessities for healthy living.

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As we stand here,  following the story of  Moshe and Aaron let us learn from them and from all the great leaders of Jewish history.  Let us try to emulate especially these two traits,  one – the desire to care for every individual, and two – the drive to motivate and inspire those around us to fulfill their true potential. Whether it is our children, our spouse, or even ourselves, we all sometimes need a push to take that step forward, to trust our instincts and break out of our inhibitions.

For we never know when a kind word and an encouraging smile, to the right person at the right time, can change the world.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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