Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Leaders and Leadership -- as we prepare for Passover

On Leaders and Leadership – Sermon for Parshat Tzav
March 26, 2010 Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Last Shabbat, as we began our annual look at the book of Leviticus, we re-established the modern Reform Jewish paradigm for approaching this sacred book – read it, attempt to understand the significance in context, and where we are unable or unwilling to follow the law to the letter, find a way to apply its spirit, as understood from the significance and context, in our own lives. We discussed questions that should challenge us individually and collectively, to point out that we, by our own actions, can do more than we are currently, then turned our attention to the situation between Israel and the US – which, sadly, got no better this week.

I owe everyone who heard those words last week, or read them on-line, the same apology I gave at the introduction to my blog posting of the text. What was missing from last week’s sermon, and I knew it when I spoke the words, was an action strategy on our part that might change the status quo that we spent so much time lamenting. While I hinted at actions that we could take here when it comes to our congregational life, there was no similar plan laid out for how to move the peace process, and the rapidly souring Israeli-American relationship, in the right direction. For that omission, I am truly sorry.

However, there were 2 significant reasons for this deliberate omission. First, I was keenly aware that the difficulty in understanding the root causes of the events of the last few weeks required us to spend too much time and go into too much detail, simply to make the points that needed to be made in explaining the situation. I did NOT want to add to the length of an already too long sermon. But even more than that, despite my background in political science, and my time studying in and about Israel, honestly, I am at a loss as to what it will take to succeed that we can hope to accomplish, either by our own actions, or by lobbying our elected officials. The situation really IS that far out of control.

But that was all last week. Tonight, we dive into parshat Tzav, which delves even more deeply into the details of the sacrifices, before taking us, as we read earlier, through the ordination of Aaron as the High Priest, and the formal establishment of the entire system of ritual leadership of our people. Tonight, I want us to focus on this latter part of the portion – if for no other reason than there is only so much that we can learn from the details of a sacrificial system that we have no desire to see reinstituted in our lifetimes!

The text gives us the ritual for establishing Aaron and his sons as the religious heads of our people in ancient times. The first item that should jump out at us is that Moses himself is expected to install his brother as High Priest. This allows us to make two significant points – one obvious, the other less so. The obvious point of Moses’ role in this ritual is to make clear the importance, even the necessity, of the two leaders – Moses and the High Priest – being able to work together in serving God and the people. Such is the nature of rituals – especially those marking the beginning of something new – they ought to hit us over the head with the “sledgehammer o’ metaphor,” giving us a clear image of what to expect from this new entity or undertaking. Think weddings, or Rabbinic or Board Installation services, or even the way we celebrate b’nai mitzvah, for some excellent modern examples of this same phenomenon!

But there is an even more subtle message in God’s instructions to Moses to install his brother as the High Priest. We have seen, throughout the story, God and Moses working extremely closely, and with great success, in leading the people. On the assumption that we would expect the High Priest to maintain a very close personal and working relationship with God, we certainly couldn’t be blamed if we expressed surprise that it was Aaron, rather than Moses, who was chosen for this task. In fact, the Midrash makes fairly clear to us that Moses really WANTED that position, even more than the overall leadership position he had. And the Rabbis of old were not just projecting their own ideas into Moses’ character in this. From the beginning, Moses tried NOT to be the leader. He claimed he was unfit to be spokesman to Pharaoh or to the people, so God sent Aaron to speak for him. He complained bitterly about the people’s unwillingness to be led during their many uprisings. He spent so much time on judging their issues that Jethro had to sit him down and make him see that he was killing himself by not delegating significant responsibility to others.

On the other hand, as soon as Moses was on the mountain even minutes longer than the 40 days and 40 nights he told the people he would be away, they turned to Aaron (was there another available choice? There ARE other leaders named in the text!), and insisted that he build them an idol. Even though, on the surface, his willingness to accede to their request probably should have ruined his chances to become High Priest, a closer reading points out that at every step of his acting as leader, he tried to redirect the mob back to YHWH, albeit without success. But then again, Moses only succeeded in regaining control after arguing with God over who should handle it, coming down the mountain, breaking the tablets of God’s law to get attention, and then sending out the Levites to kill those who insisted on sinning still. Neither one of them distinguished themselves by successfully handling the out-of-control mob!

Which marks our point of departure into our own modern experience. Leaders who do not succeed in leading, who forget why they are in the position of leadership. Leaders who allow themselves to become ineffectual by becoming temporarily blind to the needs of those they are leading. Not that Moses or Aaron is guilty of these shortcomings themselves, but rather these are the kind of leaders of whom we have far too many examples in our own time.

We have, to a large degree, allowed ourselves to get worn down by the failures of our elected political leaders, on both the national and local level, to remember who voted them into office in the first place, whose interests they supposedly represent. In some cases, there may be good reason for this. For as long as anyone can remember, Bowie has been represented in the Maryland Senate by two men – Leo Green and now Doug Peters. Both are widely respected for NOT being of the type we are talking about tonight. But both, as strong Catholics, have consistently failed to represent us on issues such as women’s reproductive rights and homosexuals’ rights, choosing instead to follow the deeply held convictions of their own hearts. This is NOT the kind of failure to listen to the electorate that we need to fix – since their views on these subjects were clear to us long before we elected them, and we chose them anyway. In fact, more examples of leaders who clearly express, and consistently follow, the dictates of whatever belief system motivates them would be a step in the right direction for all of us!

Rather, I am talking about those who run on a party label rather than a conscience or even a clear voting record, who say whatever they think will get them elected, and then, once in office, care only about getting re-elected, which sadly, in this day and age, is easier achieved by pandering to big money corporate supporters than caring about the Joe the Plumbers who elected them originally. I am talking about those who, when nominated for judgeships, refuse to disclose their personal beliefs, and try to suppress their records, claiming that these would only bias opinion about what they could do in the future. I am talking about those who ran promising change, and then became part of the status quo and blocked change. I am talking about those who seem to have no positive ideas of their own, but insist that every idea presented by the opposing party is wrong.

But most of all I am talking about those in our country who seem to have forgotten the concept of the “loyal opposition,” – the appropriate role of the minority party. Their role is to serve as the conscience of the country – questioning the actions of the majority, to ensure that they ARE acting in the best interests of the country as a whole. This may have been true once, but apparently, is not so anymore.

Now, it appears that the role of the minority party has changed dramatically. It appears to be defined as follows: spend every possible second starting the next election cycle, in the hopes of increasing the numbers identified by OUR party’s label, irrespective on where those individuals might actually stand on issues, or their competence to serve and lead. It appears to center on running down not merely the policies of the incumbent majority, but when that does not work, engaging in character assassination against the duly elected opposition leaders, on motivating their electorate to act through scare tactics about their future if they don’t act, rather than proposing authentic alternative solutions. And now, it appears that back-room horse-trading, once the most egregious of political sins, has instead been replaced with the public threat that if another legislator votes against my view, I will personally make sure he is challenged in his next election! And when even that doesn’t work, incitement of the masses to violence against duly elected leaders, as has been reported in the aftermath of the health care vote! We are back to Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton – perhaps the darkest days of American politics!

In short, civil discourse appears to have been completely eclipsed by bully tactics. The ability of elected leaders to work together for the common good has been replaced by a cronyism of self-protection and interdependence that has turned politics into a lifetime career that it was never meant to be, and incumbent status into a huge advantage for re-election. As a result, re-election has become the gold standard – anything that increases its chances, no matter how morally questionable, is valued, and anything that gets in the way must be squashed!

Just imagine for a second that the Midrashic Rabbis were accurate in what Moses really wanted, but that he and Aaron were, l’havdil, 21st century American politicians! Not only would they have failed to work together, but Moses, at every opportunity, would have been undermining Aaron’s authority, both in private dealings as the leader, and in public accusations that sacrifices were being mishandled. They would have traded ugly recriminations over who was responsible for the deaths of all those civilians in the incident of the Golden Calf.
Aaron would have questioned Moses’ leadership at every turn, especially as the years passed, and the deaths mounted. Oh, sorry, that last one actually DID happen! And one of them would have sided with Korach and Dathan and Abiram, and the tea-party folks who preferred return to Egypt over the progression into the unknown against the other, completely rewriting Jewish history and our upcoming festival of Passover.

But now, imagine that the recently (almost) completed health care debate had been waged in the Biblical context. Aaron and Moses, putting aside petty squabbles and personal desires, leading the people to a promised land that, while not perfect, certainly achieved what they set out to achieve. Not without some struggles along the way, which they would have overcome. Not, perhaps, without some others questioning their authority and direction, and maybe even, in the short term, gaining enough traction to temporarily pull us in a different direction, only to be eventually overcome by the forces of right. Ahh, times were so much simpler then!

Sadly, our leadership gap today isn’t merely in our highest elected leaders. Take the total lack of leadership coming out of the courts and prosecutors’ office in PG County. A police officer, traveling 50 miles an hour off-duty in a 25 mph zone, strikes a car and kills its driver. And all that he is charged with is a speeding ticket, because the prosecutor can’t – or won’t – make a case against him. And lest we think he was protected because he was a law enforcement professional, what are we to make of the headline story in this week’s Bowie Blade?

Earlier this year, an officer serving at Bowie HS was physically assaulted by 4 students inside the school, one of whom grabbed his weapon. 1 month ago, 3 of the 4 were found “involved” – the juvenile court equivalent of “guilty.” Each was sentenced to 30 days of electronic monitoring and supervised probation. Two were 17, one was 16. The fourth, also 16, who admitted to jumping on the officer’s back, and was identified by witnesses as the one who had grabbed for the gun, had been found “not involved” in an earlier proceeding. But before we go off on why these 4 were not tried as adults, or how the 4th one got off, or why the punishment didn’t better fit the crime, for which the 4 all claimed they were victims, not perpetrators (so much for the theory that they had already learned their lesson!), believe it or not, there is more!

Since the incident occurred in the school, the school did not have to wait for the courts, and acted to expel the four students. Their parents appealed the expulsions, and, following a second hearing, all 4 students (although none achieved even a 1.0 GPA through the first two grading periods of this school year) were allowed to return to school and reassigned to other PGC schools! In Prince George’s County, physically assaulting a peace officer apparently can no longer get you expelled, only transferred to another school where you will fail. Talk about “No Child Left Behind”! But finally, this, WHY did it take the local paper of record an entire month after the 3 were sentenced, and longer since the trial of the 4th, to even report this story to the public in the first place?? Who can we the people count on today?

However, before we allow this to become a self-righteous rant, rather than the collective preparation and soul-searching that this season of preparation for Passover requires of us, let us make sure that our own behavior allows us to be justified in throwing these accusations at others whom we have placed in positions of authority over us.

A colleague, for whom I have the highest regard, both as a role model and a teacher, felt compelled to write to his congregation this week, expressing shock and dismay at the number of kids in his religious school who were reporting that they and their families would not be abstaining from eating bread during the upcoming holiday. We all know that most of us don’t search for chametz – even though the spiritual metaphor is so potentially powerful in our day -- or even change our plates. And we know that precious few of us keep kosher in our homes throughout the year. We even know that, despite our best efforts, there may even be some in our community who do not celebrate at a seder meal at all. While these truths may sadden us, as we look at missed opportunities for spiritual growth, they do not threaten our individual or collective Jewish identity terribly much. But eating bread during Passover? Willfully, publicly? This seems to be a dangerous level that, if not our own personal community, clearly parts of our broader local Jewish community seems all too comfortable with. And what message do the adults who make those choices send to young Jews and to the non-Jewish world?

We almost all have no problem following 2 of the 3 required mitzvot of the holiday – telling the story, and eating matzah. Why then is the third – to abstain from bread products, such a hardship? A week – not even 8 days! For most of us, if our doctor’s told us to do it for health reasons, we’d give it up in a heartbeat! Thankfully, here, I am not aware of such behavior starting to take hold. If I was, I wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable joking with the families that are traveling to Paris during Passover about being unable to eat the bread there!

Friends, leadership takes many forms in our world today. Few, if any of us, are completely exempt from ever being called upon to lead. What we do and how we do it when we are given those opportunities can and does impact many more than just ourselves. As we prepare ourselves for Passover, and read parshat Tzav, let us commit, at this season, and throughout the year, to demand quality leadership, and, when we see it lacking, to exercise our own good leadership by not standing by silently helpless, but rather, by calling out those who fail us as our leaders on their shortcomings, demanding improvement, atonement, and replacement as warranted. Because if it does not start with us, now, when and where will it start!? KYR

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