Here it was, the sixth session of the class which was using the book of Genesis as a source for studying the nature of leadership. It was proving not to be the kind of class in which the teacher lectured and the students listened passively. Rather, it was more like a discussion group in which everyone participated.
Everyone, that is, except for Hillel. In my experience as a teacher, I have often taken notice of the one student who literally takes a backseat and chooses to remain silent. Left alone, such a student could remain silent for the duration of the course. I learned long ago to do what I could to invite such "backseaters" into the discussion. Invariably, they have had much to say, and frequently, they add a dramatically novel dimension to the proceedings.
So, before the more talkative and eager students could gain control of the floor, I invited Hillel to share the leadership lessons that he gleaned from this week's Torah portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). I was thrilled that Hillel not only welcomed my invitation but responded to it enthusiastically.
"This week in the synagogue, we will read those chapters of Genesis which focus upon the Patriarch Isaac. I must confess that when I read about Isaac, I found him to be a failed leader. When I confront his inability to distinguish between his saintly son, Jacob, and his martially inclined son, Esau, I cannot suppress the question, 'What was he thinking?' "
Myron, who shared Hillel's taciturn character, raised his hand. He apparently decided that my invitation to Hillel to become more involved in the discussion had also applied to him. "Hillel's question is so glaringly obvious that earlier commentators must have asked it as well. I wonder what they had to say."
This gave the class's "talmid chacham", Zalman, the opening he was looking for. "Indeed, many traditional commentators struggled with this very question," he said. "One of them, Don Isaac Abarbanel, believed that Isaac was blinded by his feelings of favoritism for Esau. In fact, he interprets the first verse of chapter 27, 'When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see', metaphorically—his eyes were too dim to see the obvious failings of his favored son."
The regular reader of this column will remember that, several weeks ago, Miriam had resolved to use this class as a laboratory to overcome her shyness. And so, she courageously attempted to out-scholar Zalman: "I discovered a different approach cited by the master teacher, Nechama Leibowitz. She quotes a source which suggests that Isaac, because of his experience of having nearly been offered as a sacrifice, became so pious and other-worldly that he was oblivious to duplicity and to the falsehoods of this world—so much so, that he was easily deceived by Esau."
Miriam could not suppress teasing Zalman. "How's that for erudition, Zalman?" Zalman begrudgingly gave her a big smile and a thumbs-up.
I was certain that at this point, Othniel would enter the fray with yet another approach to this dilemma and that he would base it upon one of his poignant personal experiences. I was not disappointed. He stood up to emphasize his message: " I don't think Isaac was blind to Esau's true nature. I think he chose to give him a blessing precisely because he knew Esau's wicked propensities very well. He wanted to reform Esau and chose to do so by blessing him. Surely, as I have learned in my dealings with real enemies, the way to exert positive influence upon others, especially upon a wayward child, is not by cursing him and criticizing him. Drawing him close by blessing him is definitely the preferred approach."
The class was beginning to develop predictable patterns of behavior. The quieter students were starting to open up, Zalman and Othniel were each comfortable sharing their particular sources of expertise, and Miriam and the other women felt included.
And, of course, Sam had his summarizing role to play, a role which he typically reserved for the closing moments of the class session.
Here is how he wrapped it up: "We have heard three approaches to Hillel's question, 'What was he thinking?' Each approach articulates something very important about leadership.
"From Zalman's approach, we can learn about one of the dangers of leadership: leaders may become so prejudiced by their personal relationships with their subordinates that their decision-making capacities are compromised.
"Miriam's insight is especially suggestive because of what it implies for religious leaders, whose very spirituality may prevent them from perceiving the more mundane facets of life.
"Finally, Othniel has again expressed a fundamental lesson for all leaders. If you wish to positively influence others, choose the path of praise and blessing."
Carol, the class optimist and perpetual "big sister," applauded Sam's summary.
I too applauded. But whereas her applause was expressed by her clapping hands, mine was an inner applause. Once again, I had learned that a teacher need not lecture, but can trust the students to teach and learn from each other.
Once again, I had witnessed how astute was the observation of our Sages:
"I have learned much from my teachers, and more from my colleagues. But from my students, I have learned most of all."