Loyal readers of this weekly column will remember Richard, Leon, and Simon. They were the three young men who signed up for my class on the Book of Genesis, Sefer Bereshit, many years ago. I then used Genesis as the source text for an introductory course on basic Jewish philosophy.
My experience was a most interesting, surprising, and successful one, as you will remember. It led me to subsequently attempt to use Genesis as a source text for several other topics. I would like to dedicate this week’s column, and those of the next twelve weeks as well, to a description of one of those “experiments.”
A topic that has always fascinated me is the topic of leadership. I have taken courses and read many books on the subject, and I have spoken and written about leadership from many perspectives. Once, and this too was many years ago, a national Jewish organization requested that I give a course to young men and women, newly active on their synagogue boards, who would benefit from learning about effective leadership in the Jewish community.
I accepted the challenge and decided to use Sefer Bereshit as a text upon which to base my lectures, and as a springboard for classroom discussion.
I ask you, dear reader, to bear with me over the next three months or so as I introduce you to some of the colorful personalities in the class, and as I highlight some important lessons on the subject of leadership.
I entered the classroom to find about a dozen eager young adults. It looked to me like a varied group, comprised of mostly men and just two or three women. Some men in dark suits and ties, others dressed less formally. Women all modestly dressed, and sitting adjacent to one another.
I had decided to begin the course by stressing the importance of time management. I told them that I once interviewed quite a famous Jewish leader who told me that the best way to know whether a person was suited for leadership was to determine how well he managed his time.
Then I immediately challenged the class: “What can we learn about time management from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bereshit?”
Several hands shot up, but I won’t share the more obvious contributions with you. I will tell you what Zalman, who eventually proved himself to be the class scholar, had to say. “It always struck me as important that the Torah begins with a long list of things the Almighty created in the realm of three-dimensional space. They include mountains and oceans, birds and mammals and man. But we only find one thing that he created in the dimension of time, and that is Shabbat, the Sabbath: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy…’. (Genesis 2:3)”
Zalman had a lot to say about his observation, and I certainly cannot claim to remember all of it. But I will always remember his comments about what the Sages say in Midrash Tanchuma, which he was able to quote verbatim. It is a Midrash on the text in Leviticus 22:27 which reads, “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on shall be acceptable as an offering…”
The Midrash comments: “This is to be compared to a king who enters a new province and announces that no one can have an audience with him until he first has an audience with the Queen. So too, no animal is a fit sacrifice to the King of Kings until it first experiences a Shabbat. Hence, ‘seven days shall it stay with its mother.’ During those seven days it will experience one Shabbat.”
That bit of erudition was just the beginning, as Zalman went on to quote another commentary which pointed out that circumcision, brit milah, also cannot take place before eight days, so that the newborn boy must live through one Shabbat before entering into the Covenant. Leadership, whether in the symbolic form of an animal fit for sacrifice, or whether in the form of a new member of the Jewish society of potential leaders, must include an encounter with the Queen, with Shabbat.
At this point, I stopped Zalman. After all, I found myself thinking, “I am the teacher here, not him.”
“Zalman,” I said aloud, “you are helping us see the value for time management of the Shabbat. There must be one day of the week when the leader not only rests in the physical sense, but allows himself or herself to recharge spiritually. The leader requires a respite; time for personal study and reflection, and time for spouse and children and friends.”
Priscilla, the young woman who would consistently prove herself to be the most practical of the group, offered her first insight to the class: “One of the problems that leaders have to face is burnout. Shabbat is one effective way to prevent, or at least forestall, burnout.”
“Wow,” I exclaimed to myself. “This group is moving very fast. It is tackling both Torah content and general leadership issues, and just in the opening moments of a new class!” I was once more convinced of the value of Sefer Bereshit as a teaching tool. It worked for teaching Jewish philosophy, and now it was rapidly showing promise as a text for the study of leadership.
The discussion, and I am only sharing a snippet of it here, also taught me what every teacher eventually learns; namely, you learn more from your students than from anyone else. I learned something I had frankly never thought of before. Among the many blessings that Shabbat has brought to the Jewish people, there is one that few have ever considered. Observing Shabbat can be a component of good time management, and well-spent Shabbatot make for effective leadership.
This was just the opening volley in what ultimately proved to be a most exciting intellectual journey. I invite you to read next week’s column to learn what clues to good leadership the class found in Parshat Noach. But meanwhile, try to think of some of those clues on your own, and don’t hesitate to bring them to my attention at firstname.lastname@example.org.