The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, July 10, 2015

What to Look for in a Leader

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Friday, July 10, 2015
Shabbat Pinchas

“May God appoint someone over the community” (Num 27:16). As Moses nears the end of his term in this week’s parshah, he starts worrying about succession, as any good leader should. He asks God to appoint someone, and they bring Joshua before the priest and the whole community to install him as next in line.

Perfect timing. Tonight we recognize our outgoing board members and welcome new ones. I will call them all up in a moment, but first, a word about leadership, and a charge.

God singles out Joshua as the next leader of the Israelites. Why? Because Joshua is an איש אשר רוח בו / a person in whom there is ruach, spirit. An inspired man, skillful and insightful. 

There’s more to it. Our rabbis have much to say about what it means to have ruach within you, and why that qualifies you for leadership.

A midrash:
When Moses asked God to appoint someone over the community, he said: Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You — the disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them, when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every [one] according to his disposition… Moses asked: Will the man You set over the congregation have within himself the spirits of sixty myriads, so that he will be able to converse with each man according to his particular disposition? 
In other words, will our leaders have the kind of constitution that allows them to put up with everyone? (It’s a lot of Jews, after all.) Or, better: Will our leaders have the breadth of spirit to meet people where they are, respect them for who they are, appreciate the unique personality, talents, and interests they each bring?

It’s a tall order. And it gets taller. Another midrash says something different about Joshua having spirit within him, defining him as a person “who will have the capacity to stand up to the spirit of each and every one” (Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Book of Legends 727:45). While a leader has to meet people where they are, a leader shouldn’t simply see which way the wind is blowing and run there. A leader must also have strength of conviction. A leader must sometimes do what’s unpopular. 

Another translation of the same midrash seeks a person with the capacity to face up to the spirit of everyone. Here, it’s a call for accountability. A true leader is responsible to the community, not above it.

It is a tall order indeed, to balance those kinds of spirit. The spirit of including, listening, welcoming; the spirit of leading, pushing, risk-taking; the spirit of answering to those you lead. It is a high and worthy aspiration.

So it seems Moses has asked for a leader who can be all things to all people. We do that, too — we set up unrealistic expectations. The midrash continues with God’s response to that kind of thinking:
The Holy One replied: Moses, you have made a proper request… He showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom…there will be but one spirit, but it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all men — that person is the Messiah. (Book of Legends 101:134; Yalkut Pinchas, 776; Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Yelammedenu)
We ask our leaders to aspire to the highest standard, as we should. But we acknowledge that we are only human. We will all fall short in some way — until we can convince the Messiah to join our board. And we all know when that will happen.

Even as we in leadership set the bar high for ourselves, we should keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, among our community. In one final midrash, God explains His pick of Joshua like this:
You know how long Joshua has served you, how much honor he accorded you, how he came early and stayed late in your meeting place, arranging the benches and spreading the mats. (Ibid.)
Leaders should not be spotlight-seekers. Indeed, much of the work of leadership is not glamorous. Setting up chairs, putting tables away, passing out books — these tasks are not glitzy. But they are holy. Serving is part of leading. And as someone said to me recently: You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.

Together these voices of midrash invite us to be confident and humble, strong and inclusive, entrepreneurial and accountable, visionary and aware of our limitations. They call us to be self-reflective leaders invested in self-improvement, dedicated to the building up of a community that will outlive us. They ask us to remember that we are all interims, preparing to pass on our sacred purpose l’dor vador, to the next person of spirit who steps up to lead.

Now I’d like to invite up our outgoing board members; in thanks for your years of service, we’ve made a donation to a cause in honor of each of you:
Lee Rittvo - Aspen Film
Esther Navias -
Michelle Stiller - AEF
Julie Wagner - Hope Center
Stuart Fine - Children's Hospital Denver

And now our new board members, please come to the bima:
Craig Navias
Chuck Shenk
Judy Craig
Alan Levey
Goldie Knurr

Mi Shebeirach for Aliyah

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