Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Lech Lecha

“The Active Leader”

If you are reading this column regularly, you may remember that Miriam was the shy participant in the class that I have been describing. You will surely remember that this was a class in which I used the book of Genesis as a springboard for discussions about leadership. I had been asked to assist the members of the class to develop leadership skills for use in their respective Jewish synagogue communities.

Miriam began to speak even before I had formally called the class to order. “I would like this class to be a kind of laboratory in which we can try out new leadership skills and not just learn about leadership theoretically. I know that I come across as shy and sometimes withdrawn and I want to correct that, so here goes!”

She certainly grabbed the class’s attention. Even Myron, who had been sitting with an expressionless face for the first two class sessions, and whose name did not appear in our discussion of their respective parshiyot, opened his eyes wide in surprise and adopted a posture which demonstrated his anticipation of what Miriam would say.

“I am so impressed by the contrast between the leadership styles of Abraham, the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, and Noah, after whom last week’s Torah portion was named.”

Alex, who had a way of using his tall stature to project his skepticism, questioned Miriam. “Abraham and Noah were clearly different types of people, but what makes you think that they were so different in their leadership styles?”
Miriam gulped. She definitely wanted to attempt to overcome her shyness by opening the class with her statement, but she apparently did not anticipate a confrontation with another class member, and particularly not from Alex, who towered over the others, in both his physical size and his debating skills.

But she held her ground. “I read the entire parsha, as had been assigned by the Rabbi. But I also consulted some of the basic commentaries. They all emphasize that Noah was indeed a righteous person, but he was also a very private person, very much like me. But a leader cannot contain his personal piety. He must influence the people around him, and Noah failed to do so. Abraham, however, was very different. Outreach to others was his specialty.”

Myron didn’t even have to raise his hand to enter the fray. His heretofore expressionless face now projected an enthusiasm and eagerness which demanded that I recognize him. He had this to say: “Zalman and I have been meeting between class sessions, and he has been teaching me some of the subtleties of the Hebrew text. Zalman, do you mind if I share one of your insights with the group?”

Zalman waved his hand in a manner signaling his permission for Myron to continue, but cautioned, “Go ahead, but if you mess up, I’ll barge right in and correct you!”

Myron accepted the challenge. He pointed out that at the very beginning of Parshat Noach, last week’s parsha, we read: “Noah was a righteous man…Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). On the other hand, toward the very end of this week’s parsha, we read: “The Lord appeared to Abraham and said to him…’Walk in My ways and be whole’ (Genesis 17:1).

“When Zalman and I compared these two statements, he shared with me a startling insight. Noah is spoken of in the past tense; not only in the phrase I just quoted, but elsewhere as well: ‘Noah was righteous,’ ‘you alone have I found righteous before Me.’

“But God speaks to Abraham in the future tense: ‘Walk before me,’ ‘go forth from your native land,’ ‘I will make of you a great nation.’ It is as if Noah’s work was over and done with, whereas Abraham had his task still before him.

“That seems to me to reflect a difference in leadership styles which goes beyond Miriam’s important distinction between Noah’s solitude and Abraham’s involvement with others. Noah saw his job as completed, a matter of the past. Abraham persisted with a vision of the future and was prepared to rise to challenges that lay ahead.”

Zalman looked at Myron approvingly. “You not only understood my careful reading of the text, but you explained it exactly right. I would only add that the great 19th century commentator known as Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin) points to Abraham’s reaction to being addressed in the future tense. ‘Abram threw himself on his face’ (Genesis 17:3). Why? Because, suggests the Netziv, ‘he was astounded and confused to hear that the Almighty expected still more of him, indicating that he had not yet fulfilled his obligations and was still falling short of his mission.’ ”

The reader will surely remember Othniel, the origins of whose name I have still not disclosed. He saw himself as Zalman’s rival for the title of most erudite class participant. Not to be outdone, he asked the class to simply observe the startling difference reflected by the very names by which these two adjacent Torah portions are known. Noach is related to the Hebrew word menucha, which means “rest.” Lech lecha means “go.” Noah was passive, and Abraham active, always doing, ever accomplishing. His leadership style is the very antithesis of “rest”.

Once again, the class was doing all of my work for me. Three important components of effective leadership surfaced in the course of our conversation: an orientation toward the future rather than the past; transcending the narrow confines of one’s own self; and an active stance towards life. All characteristics of the good leader, and all based, one way or another, upon this week’s Torah portion.

I felt compelled to conclude the class discussion by quoting Maimonides about the nature of Abraham’s spiritual leadership. In his major compendium of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides offers a fascinating account of the history of idolatry and its replacement by monotheism. After detailing the nature and extent of the idolatrous society which Abraham initially encountered, Maimonides describes the method Abraham used to drastically change that society: “He would journey from place to place, and gathered around him the people of every city.” Abraham did not simply mimic the folkways of his ancestors. He questioned them, rebelled against them, and struck out, alone, on his own new path. He was not satisfied with his initial accomplishments but courageously spread the word of God to more and more people. He was not satisfied, as Noah was, to stay in one place, as a “man of the earth.” Rather, he adopted the lifestyle of a shepherd, ever on the move. But, rather than just tend to sheep and goats, he guided flocks of human beings, and led them in his own dynamic but compassionate fashion.

I thought that my remarks were an adequate ending to the evening’s discussion. But I was trumped by the ever-practical Priscilla! “I can’t wait to delve into next week’s Torah portion. My intuition tells me that we are going to study about the ways in which Abraham would apply his leadership skills to practical situations.”

It was left for me to utter the session’s last words: “Priscilla, you won’t be disappointed!”