Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In People We Too Should Trust

(This d'var torah originally appeared earlier this week at http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50494/p/salsa/web/common/public/content?content_item_KEY=11024)

One of the tasks of the director of my graduate school program in Jewish Communal Service, Dr. Bernard Reisman, of blessed memory, was to imbue us with the knowledge and spirit of best practices in the realm of building Jewish community.  To this end, one of the most essential things he said to us was, “Trust the process.”

In our graduate school context, that meant that even though we would serve as leaders in Jewish communal organizations, we had to learn to trust the wisdom of the people with whom we worked.  Similar to Moses in this week’s Torah portion, we grad students needed to understand that it was vital to trust the instincts of those whom we lead, to make the right interventions when necessary, and to defer sometimes to their direction and vision.

During this week of Shabbat Hazon – a Shabbat of Vision – Moses speaks to the desert generation of Israel as it stands ready to enter the Promised Land.  He relates, “I said to you at that time…’How can I, alone, bear your burdens, your dealings, and your bickering.  Pick for yourselves wise, discerning, and known people from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your leaders.’  You answered me and responded, ‘What you have suggested is a good thing.’” (Deuteronomy 1:9, 12-14)

Here, he recounts the prudent advice given him by his father-in-law Jethro 39 years before about why and how to delegate responsibility, and the way in which Moses put that counsel into practice.  In the Deuteronomy version of the story, however, Moses adds an crucial detail that was not present in that story of Jethro (Exodus 18).  In our current parashah, he says that he turned to the Israelites for advice and consent on the matter.  And he reports that the people gave their approval.

Moses does two things in providing this enhanced rendering of the story.  Not only does he provide an ancestral hekhsher (imprimatur) to the system of justice that he established.  He also demonstrates that the concept of delegating judicial duties came about through an act of collaboration with amcha, with the people, subtly implying that such teamwork between leaders and followers should continue when the Israelites enter the Land of Promise.  Moses demonstrates that a leader can trust his or her followers sufficiently enough, in order have them jointly shape future visions and concepts for the nation’s benefit.

This understated story detail holds great potential for us.  The challenge in our day is two-fold: As leaders, we need to determine how we will work in partnership with those whom we lead.  As followers, we need to be willing to put our ideas forward in an appropriately forceful manner, and then allow proper processes of authority to form the conclusion with our making interventions carefully, and at the right time.  Both of these actions require people to engage in tzimtzum, or a “contraction” of ourselves and our priorities, to allow others and their desires to fill the vacuum left behind, and to grant the natural processes of human life to create a solution for the problem that is helpful to both sides.

This is why we have to trust the process, and trust people.

Naturally, there are risks involved in any of this.  For leaders: Seeking counsel and advice for proposals opens us up to criticism about what we believe; it forces us to unveil ideas that are unformed and incomplete; and it removes control from us.  For followers: Sanctioning involvement in a collaborative process with leadership compels us to be engaged with someone whom we may not always like; it suggests that we would need to compromise on the eventual outcome; and it allows pessimists and naysayers to suspect and accuse us of selling out.

But if there is exhibited great wisdom on both sides, and if everyone demonstrates sincere good will and humility, the outcome would be nothing but positive.

Moses may not be completely certain of the Israelites’ ability to conquer the Promised Land, but his vision was to provide them with the best possible set of conditions under which they will build their new land, a society based on justice, partnership, and good intentions.  And one of those conditions is the manner in which they work with one another toward the fulfillment of their vision and goal.  Moses taught this to them, and I believe he teaches this to us for our future benefit.