Friday, January 4, 2008

Parashat Va’era – 2007

In one of my previous posts, I cited one of my favorite quotations which is ascribed to Albert Einstein. Einstein defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The next two weeks of Torah readings present us with an excellent application of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Pharaoh is given multiple opportunities to give in to Moshe and to God by releasing the Israelites from slavery. Each time, he gives the same answer – NO! - and each time he, his people, or his land (or all three simultaneously) suffer disasters of, well, Biblical proportions. Even after the suffering of every house in Egypt from the tenth plague and his finally giving in, Pharaoh cannot deviate from his standard response. He gathers his army and goes out with the troops to either destroy or re-enslave our ancestors. If this is not insanity, I don’t know what is.

Not only does Pharaoh make the same mistake over and over again, he avoids accepting responsibility for the national consequences of his choices. While not the intent of the Divine story, we never hear Pharaoh apologize to his people for going down the path of destruction, let alone to the victims of his opression. He never accepts responsibility, personal responsibility, for the consequences of his poor leadership choices. He never resigns. He is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power and to divert blame for failure. He has no vision, is incapable of changing direction, of making a different choice in light of the facts. In the end, what is left of Mitzrayim is a shadow of its former glory, and a shrunken people with less soul. In the end, Pharaoh is a flawed and failed leader.

Jewish leaders – professional and lay, clergy and educator, fundraiser and philanthropist – should read the Pharaoh narratives closely, for we are charged with having vision for the future. We are charged with recognizing when the status quo is no longer enough. We are charged with changing direction, of seeking out and giving different answers. And we are charged with accepting responsibility and apologizing for our failures. If we put those failures in vision and in repetition on others, then we fail our People, our God and our mission in this world.

Recently, I read articles in the Jewish press from national leaders who bemoan the current state of commitment and engagement with Jewish living – and learning – and then place the blame exclusively on local professionals or local lay leaders. In so doing, they ignore their own responsibility for the crisis.

Another set of articles I am exploring advocates again and again for less – less learning, less knowledge, less depth, less meaning, less doing – as if all that stops the Jewish People from growing is that we are not disciples of Mies Van Der Rohe, the famous architect whose approach was “Less is More.” We have been down that road for at least thirty, if not forty or fifty, years. This approach is the embodiment of not only Van Der Rohe, but of Einstein definition of insanity. It is clear that lite does not equal long term commitment.

Fortunately, I am reading another set of articles regarding the impact of independent minyanim; on new directions for Israel education; on innovative approaches to continuity (see Continuity and Discontinuity by Cohen and Kelman) ; and on new understandings of the concept of Jewish Peoplehood. That is, I am exploring innovations that could make a significant and positive difference in the future of our People. It is to this third group of articles, the ones that speak to depth of learning, depth of experience, depth of Torah, to which we should look for leadership for the future.

Pharaoh cannot choose, or chooses not to choose, differently. We can and we must. We must look with new vision. And we must look to depth, to content, to meaningful long term Jewish interaction. We must be leaders, or expect from them and from ourselves, no less. We must hold leaders and ourselves accountable for leading in the right direction. That is the key to our future. It is why we are set free in this world by God in the first place. It is one reason why Pharaoh fails and Moshe succeeds. And why we will succeed, or fail, in the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

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