Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Noach

“As He, or She, Could Be”

The three women in the class unanimously favored one point of view. The six men were evenly split, three agreeing with the women and three disagreeing vehemently.

Last week, I introduced readers of this column to another experiment of mine in which I used the book of Genesis as a text for teaching a topic of contemporary relevance. This time, the topic was leadership in the Jewish community, and the group of “students” was selected by a national Jewish organization that had identified them as a young group of potential synagogue leaders.

Last week, the group’s reading of Parshat Bereshit led into a discussion of the relationship between Shabbat and the management of one’s time. This week, the Torah portion of Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32) stimulated a discussion of a far more philosophical nature.

I began the class session by urging the group to first consider the major themes of the Torah portion, and only then to try to find the connection between one or more of those themes and our assigned topic, community leadership.

It was Carol who spoke up first. “This may seem paradoxical,” she began, “but I see this parsha as demonstrating the human being’s potential for good.” We had not yet encountered Carol’s thoroughly optimistic perspective, and this was only the beginning of her persistent campaign to convince us all of the fundamental goodness of human nature.

Alex, who, even when he was seated, towered above the rest of the class because of his 6’6″ stature, reacted with incredulity. “What on earth are you talking about,” he thundered. “Perhaps you read a different text than I did. Let me quote: ‘…the inclination of the heart of man is evil from his youth…’ (Genesis 8:21) That’s about as clear a statement as I’ve ever heard about the wickedness of human nature. And why, pray tell, did the good Lord find it necessary to threaten, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…” (ibid. 9:6) if He didn’t fear man’s inherent murderous nature?”

Although Carol was at least 16 inches shorter than Alex, she was far from intimidated, and retorted, “Why don’t you continue and complete the rest of that very verse? It reads, ‘for in His image did God make man!’ I take that to mean that human beings are Godlike and benevolent in their innermost selves.”

There then ensued a heated debate between the majority, led by Carol, who insisted upon the goodness of man, versus those led by Alex, who could not be persuaded to believe that human nature was anything but selfish and malicious.

I was about to intervene, to attempt to steer the conversation toward the assigned topic of leadership, but Priscilla, whose practical bent the readers of this column encountered last week, did my job for me.

“It strikes me”, she said, “that this discussion is directly related to the question of leadership. I think that there are many leaders, and they may very well be successful, who would side with Alex and affirm the essential wickedness of man. That would necessitate a leadership style which emphasizes clear guidelines and standards, and possibly even rewards and punishments, in order to control their subordinates or followers.”

Miriam demurely signaled that she wanted the floor. “I am certain that we have all experienced such leaders. But I question whether such a leader can ever truly be successful. For the successful leader in my book is the one that helps her followers reach their potential. That can only be done if the leader’s concept of human nature is basically positive, and if she allows individuals the freedom to grow, develop, and improve.”

It was left to me, as the instructor, to articulate the basic lesson here. “We all have a personal theory about human nature. Some of us believe that man is basically good, and others believe that he or she is fundamentally evil. An individual’s leadership technique is likely to reflect his or her opinion of human nature.”

The designated closing time for the class was drawing near. There were two hands raised and I knew I had to choose between calling upon Zalman, who was sure to contribute a thought-provoking remark drawing upon his significant Jewish erudition, or recognize the other raised hand.

I chose the latter course and I nodded toward Othniel, who had not said much in either of these first two class sessions. I had yet to learn that Othniel, the origins of whose name I will eventually disclose to you, possessed significant erudition, albeit of a very different type than Zalman’s.

Othniel’s contribution was clear and succinct and easily understood, despite his heavily accented English.

“Whenever I participate in discussions such as tonight’s, I appreciate all the more the wisdom of the great German writer, Goethe. He said it best:

‘If you treat a person as he is, he will remain as he is.
But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be,
He will become what he ought to be and could be.’ ”

Othniel then continued to conclude this most fascinating evening by stating the following: “It is not a matter of the basic nature of man. He has potential for good and potential for evil, potential for excellence as well as potential for mediocrity. The secret of leadership is to be able to bring out best in Man.”

He looked around the room, as if to assess the reactions of his classmates. He immediately became cognizant of the blank stares of Carol, Priscilla, and Miriam. With a big smile, and a welcoming hand motion, he exclaimed, “And I hasten to add, ‘to bring out the best in Woman.'”

This final remark evoked satisfied smiles from the other members of the class, of both genders. Those smiles indicated to me that it was time to adjourn this most fascinating class session.

But not before I urged the group to scour the Torah portion of next week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha for more material on the subject of leadership. I urge you, dear reader, to do the same.