Friday, January 22, 2010

Parashat Bo - On Leadership and Vision

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a significant amount of time talking with our Rosh Aidah candidates for the coming summer.  We are truly blessed with an incredible talent pool and I cannot imagine being more impressed with the group of candidates for our summer leadership team.  In listening to these developing leaders, I hear great passion for the Jewish people, deep appreciation for what Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has given them over their years as campers and staff members, and an intense desire to help grow the next generation of Jewish leaders...and they want everyone to have fun, themselves included. 

Conversations with potential roshei aidah cover a wide-range of topics from the sacred to the mundane, from logistics to leadership styles.  I have a set of standard questions that I ask of each candidate as I get to know them; yet, each conversation goes in unique directions based on the interests, strengths, self-perceived weaknesses, and answers of the individual candidates.  From the impact of staff members on their own camper experiences to the imprint they wold like to leave on those with whom they work, I learn a tremendous amount about each person, their character and their aspirations.

At the end of the interview, I extend an opportunity to each candidate to ask me whatever questions they might have.  Often these questions revolve around the logistics of decision making, the time table, and what happens once decisions are made.   I am usually asked about my expectations of roshei aidah, not in the world of theory but in the realm of the very concrete. In once recent conversation however, a rosh aidah candidate asked me about  leadership, not about my leadership style or about what ingredients I look for in camp leaders, but about what I believe is the first and most important characteristic of a good leader. Without missing a beat, my answer was one word: vision.  Without vision, without knowing where you want to take people, without an understanding of what success can look like and how the world can be different, then you are not a leader; you are just a person wandering around with others.

Vision is at the heart of Torah, a Divine Plan for what the world can look like.  In riveting narrative and detailed legalese, in beautiful poetry and heart-stopping prose, the stories of Torah lay out a vision for our ancestors and for us.  If, however, we took only one piece of the text, the legal portions, divorced from the narratives that frame those legal texts, we would not have a vision, we would have only law.  We would not have a sense of what a world could be like,  we would only know what we were to do without knowing "why" on any level. 

The centrality of vision in leadership comes into clear focus, in a rather round-about way, in this week's parashah. At the precipice of deliverance from slavery to freedom, just after God tells Moshe of the impending tenth plague, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, just when we are expecting to hear about the plague occurring and the Israelites departing, our story is interrupted with a detailed passage of laws regarding the קרבן פסח - the Passover Sacrifice.  It is here that the centrality of vision in leadership is raised as a major theme of Torah. Commenting on  the very first verse of the Bereisheet, Rashi famously asks: 

"Shouldn't the Torah simply have started with the verse "This month shall be the first..." which is the second verse of Exodus chapter 12 (in our parashah this week) for it is the first mitzvah commanded to Israel?"

In other words, why do we need all of the stories of Creation, of Noah, of Abraham and Sarah and all of their descendants?  Why do we have to read so many chapters of family tensions and then of slavery when we could just cut to the chase and learn about what we are expected to do?

Essentially, Rashi answers that the stories provide the context to a future challenge to the legitimacy of the Jewish People to reside in the Land of Israel:  "You are thieves who conquered the lands of the seven nations."  Paraphrasing his response, Rashi explains that all that precedes Exodus 12, the laws of the Passover Sacrifice, does so in order to show that here is a Divine Plan: that possession of the land is God's and it is God who determines who resides in the land.  God has a vision and a plan. 

Whether a person accepts Rashi's answer, and leaving aside all of the modern day political implications of Rashi's answer on the Peace Process, Rashi is telling us that the law without the context is not a vision, it is just a set of laws.  With the context of vision, the laws become a road map to achieving a Divine Plan not just for our ancestors or for us but, in the biggest future imaginable, for the entire World.  Rashi, however, is not the only one who teaches us that vision is at the heart of leadership.  It appears throughout our tradition in places both expected and unanticipated.  Luzzato, for example, in Mesillat Yesharim, a text that informs the Mussar Movement, argues that all of life in this world is to prepare the soul for The World to Come.  This world is a road map to achieving a future goal.  The tefilah, the prayer, that ends our Erev Shabbat davvening at camp, Yigdal, reminds us that God perceives the outcome of a thing before it even exists.  In the most modern of contexts, a book about the founding of Ramah, really a dialogue between Dr. Serymour Fox and his author, is titled, "Vision at the Heart," that a vision of a Jewish world served as the motivator in the development of Camp Ramah.

I believe that developing and successfully implementing visions for our Jewish worlds, be it for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin specifically or for Jewish Peoplehood in general,  is the central leadership challenge we face today.  To develop these visions we need people who can imagine things different than our current circumstances, who can dream big dreams and then go about inspiring others and implementing those plans.  We need people who can be like Nachshon ben Aminadav, who takes a calculated risk and steps into The Sea when nobody else is ready or willing.  And in dreaming about those possibilities, in developing plans, and while inspiring others to take steps to make change and vision happen, we need to remember that these visions are part of a greater vision, a Divine Vision, and that they are part of a tradition that includes both narratives and legal expectations, for the two cannot be divorced from one another. 

For over sixty years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has been a leader in developing and successfully creating Jewish futures, in inspiring people to become leaders - dreamers, innovators, and inventors - who have gone on to change Jewish worlds.  Together, we enter the next era of dreaming and designing, built on not only an exceptionally strong foundation but an equally strong building of work.  In the weeks and months to come, working with all of the exceptional members of our leadership team, from our executive director to our long-standing veteran summer leaders, from lay leaders to our program director to our new and veteran Roshei Aidah, we will imagine the next generation of Jewish leaders and Jewish communities, we will plan for them, and then we will make them happen. 

With thanks to the rosh aidah candidate who asked the question, with great anticipation of working with and learning from our 2010 team of Roshei Aidah, and with dreams of a bright Jewish future, I wish you all a

Shabbat Shalom.

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