Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Vayechi

“We Are All Leaders”

It was the last session of the course in which I was utilizing the book of Genesis as a text for the study of leadership. Since it was the final session, I decided that I would structure the discussion in a very different manner.

I began by reminding the class that this was the final opportunity to explore the concept of leadership with each other. Then I reminded them that they had each been chosen to participate in this experience because they were identified by the local Jewish community as individuals with great leadership potential.

“Tonight,” I explained, “you’ll each have the chance to identify the leadership qualities you have noticed in the other members of the class. Each of you has displayed aspects of yourself that are intricately connected with the type of leaders you can be.

“Tonight,” I continued, “I will ask each of you to explore the text of this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), particularly the section that contains Jacob’s blessings to his children. I want you to find biblical phrases which aptly fit one or another of your classmates.

I felt that I needed to provide an example, so I asked Hillel if he would mind being used as a model for what I was asking of the class. Hillel shrugged in agreement.

Knowing Hillel, I felt comfortable being a bit provoking, and said, “Hillel, you have invariably chosen to sit in the back of the room, in a very relaxed posture, and often seemed more like an observer than a participant. For you, I find a verse which Jacob applies to Issachar very apt. It reads, ‘He saw that menucha, rest, was a good thing’ (ibid. 29:15). I suggest that this phrase fits you. I am asking all of us to find other such phrases which fit other members of the class.”

Hillel’s response blew me away: “Rabbi, I agree that the verse you chose fits me. But I disagree with your interpretation of the word menucha. It does not mean ‘rest,’ certainly not in the sense of inactivity. Obadiah Sforno, the Italian Jewish commentator, translates menucha as a state of intellectual attainment which puts the soul and its conflicts to rest. That’s more like me. It’s not that I am withdrawn, but rather I strive for a state of active contemplation which brings tranquility to my soul.”

“You have given the class a perfect example, Hillel,” I responded. “You have applied to yourself a verse that portrays your style of leadership. And your familiarity with the commentary of Sforno displays a degree of erudition which you do not typically demonstrate. Using that erudition, can you find a phrase which applies to the leadership style of someone else in the group?”

“As a matter of fact,” he exclaimed, “I can: ‘His teeth are whiter than milk’ (ibid. verse 12), Jacob says of Judah. What on earth is praiseworthy about white teeth? The rabbis in the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 111b) suggest that when you smile at a person, showing him the whiteness of your teeth, you are doing him a greater favor than if you had merely served him milk. We have one person in this group whose smile has impressed us all. I refer, of course, to Carol, and her ‘big sister’ smile.”

I encouraged Hillel to face Carol and address his compliment directly to her. He did just that and said, “Carol, your smile has been infectious in this room. It has changed our mood more than once, and it has taught us all that a smile can be a leadership tool. I bless you, as Jacob blessed Judah, to use that tool to help lead our people.”

By this time, the entire class understood what I was trying to do. One by one they selected verses from the week’s Torah portion and applied them to each other. They expressed their appreciation for the leadership talents they observed in one another and used the opportunity to express farewell blessings to each member of the class.

For example, Othniel turned to his erstwhile rival, Zalman, and said, “Zalman, I too will draw from Jacob’s words to Issachar. He compared Issachar to a ‘strong-boned donkey,’ who ‘bent his shoulder to the burden’ (ibid. verses 14-15). Now don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing you to a donkey. But Jacob saw in his son a dedication to study diligently, to toil in Torah, and to become an accomplished scholar. I see that dedication in you, and my blessing to you is that you put your particular leadership skills to good use for the Jewish people.”

Zalman graciously return compliments to Othniel: “In many ways, your life parallels the life of Joseph. You too spent your youth far from your Jewish family. In your case, it was in a Christian environment. You were ‘assailed by archers,’ yet your ‘bow stayed taut.’ The ‘God of your fathers’ blessed you with ‘blessings that surpassed the blessings of your ancestors’ (ibid. verses 23-26), and which brought you back to your people. The unique experiences of your life are your tools for future leadership.”

And so, one by one, each student heard his or her own leadership skills blessed by a fellow student. Alex was blessed for his self-confidence and assertiveness; Priscilla, for her practicality; Miriam, for her quiet inner strength; Myron, for his stoic courage; and Sam, for his ability to summarize complicated arguments and reduce them to brief and cogent lessons.

Each heard his and her blessings couched in biblical phrases drawn, in the last moments of this unique class, from the last verses of the book of Genesis.

And so, dear reader, I end the Genesis section of my ongoing weekly columns, The Person in the Parsha, and prepare to move on to the book of Exodus. I feel compelled, however, because of the correspondence I have received from many of you, to tell you that the story of the class that I have been describing is a composite of several teaching experiences I have had. Each of the characters is based on a real person who was a student of mine at some point in the 1980s.

What has happened to them? Did they realize their leadership potential? In the interest of protecting their privacy, I changed their names. Sadly, two of them, friends to the last, perished in a terrorist bus bombing on the streets of Jerusalem. One of the women is a national leader in the field of hospital administration; another is an accomplished writer of Jewish historical novels; while the third, who corresponds with me every year at Chanukah time, is proud of the family she raised and of her grandchildren who currently serve in the Israeli army. The men to whom I gave the pseudonyms of Zalman and Othniel eventually became rabbis and teachers of note, while he whom I called Hillel is now a world-famous advocate of the spiritually healing benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Next week, it is Moses’ turn to teach us more about leadership, and about so much else.