Smoke on the Altar

A fire went out from the Lord and consumed the elevation offering and the fats upon the altar; the entire people saw and sang; they fell upon their faces.

Leviticus 9.24 (Parashat Shemini)

Upon the investiture of Aaron and his sons as priests, they offered sacrifices upon the altar. At the conclusion of the ceremony, this Divine fire came own from heaven to consume the offering, concluding the service. The people cheered, sang their songs and offered their own prayers as they lay prostrate upon the ground.

I have seen film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of England, along with other great royal affairs. They are magnificent in their pomp and circumstance. The elevation of a pope is also a time of great of great pageantry. On a more personal note, my own ordination was a time of wonderful ceremony, replete with special music, a parade of rabbis and professors and a setting in a moorish-style synagogue, unique and historic in American Jewish history.

Leaders, both secular and religious, are well aware of the value of pomp and circumstance. Gala and pageantry are vital tools used to establish and enhance leadership. A recent example comes to mind: the celebrations in North Korea celebrating the founding of the modern state. No matter what we think of its current leader, the parade, the display of weapons and the speeches given on that day certainly had its intended effect: to cement the power of her leader and to send a message to the world that North Korea, in spite of her severe internal problems, was a world power and a dangerous one as well.

But on a much safer level, we learn from this Torah portion that religious ritual is actually pageantry and hence, theater. As religious leaders, we will be more effective when we tap into the power of pageantry in order to enhance our worship experiences; we will draw more people into our chapels and send more people out of our chapels with a deeper religious feeling. This does not mean that we should be sacrificing goats and sheep, nor should we only mimic 18th and 19th Century worship practices that our people have clearly rejected. Rather, we as religious leaders should be able to enhance religious pageantry in contemporary forms, using techniques such as video projections, high-end light and sound systems, contemporary dance and ethnic dress and foods when appropriate.

So our task as leaders is to tap into the power of pageantry to use it to our advantage. When we employ pomp and circumstance – and are authentic and use it to true and noble purposes – our people will respond in the affirmative. They may not bow down and pray to us (and I hope that they don’t!), but they will walk away more loyal to the mission and more eager to fulfill their role in it.

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Glory Days

He (Moses) said, “Show me Your glory.”

Exodus 33.18 (Shabbat Pesach)

As we are in the midst of our Passover (and Holy Week) celebrations, this Sabbath marks a special Torah reading, outside of the normal cycle of readings. We will return to Leviticus next week; this Sabbath marks a return to Exodus as we recall on the Sabbath of Passover the giving of the second set of Tablets of the Law, following the episode of the Golden Calf. After this horrific event, when Moses descended in a state of holiness from Mount Sinai, only to see his brother Aaron leading the people into apostasy, dancing around a graven, golden bull, Moses smashed the original tablets which God had personally engraved on stone tablets.

In the second giving of the Law, God instructed Moses to cut and write the 10 Commandments himself, perhaps as punishment for smashing the original Tablets. But before ascending Mount Sinai once again, Moses in his agitated state pleaded with God to show him some physical symbol of the Divine Presence, such as God’s face. To which God answered that no human could see God’s face and live. Yet, Moses still pined to see God’s glory, some showing of God’s presence.

When we read this verse in the Torah, one cannot help but think of the difference between ascribed and earned authority. Ascribed authority is given by virtue of position: a manager, rabbi or judge has ascribed authority, for example, by virtue of his or her position; it comes with the job. Earned authority, on the other hand, is not tied to position; it is given to a person by others by virtue of what one says and does. For example, in a hospital, a patient may be under the care of a doctor but it is the charge nurse who really knows the intimate status of that patient and administers care.

In the Exodus saga, neither God nor Moses started with either ascribed or earned authority; Egypt had plenty of gods and nobody, including the Israelites, knew who Moses was. It was only through the plagues and the death of Pharaoh and his army at the Sea of Reeds that the Israelites finally believed in God and in Moses.

But by the time of the Golden Calf, such earned authority had disappeared and Moses needed proof once again of God’s authority. Watching God’s back pass before him while standing in a cleft in the rock was to be the proof, the pep talk as it were, that Moses needed.

There are times when we as leaders need to show our earned authority. Hopefully they are few and far between but sometimes it is necessary. For example, when we adopt a collaborative approach to decision making, there are times when we are called upon to make a final decision – and it may go against the majority vote. Personnel decisions are another area that call for both earned and ascribed leadership; we do not hire, promote or terminate based upon the decisions of our group.

So when our people cry out, “Show us your glory!”, they are asking us to take the reins of leadership and show them the way. No matter how much we want to work alongside our co-workers, we must always remember that we also have to lead them; that is our primary job. Of course that involves listening and learning from them. But just as our success depends upon them, they depend upon us for their success as well. Let’s help them exceed their expectations.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

And Happy Easter, too!

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Don’t Let the Light Go Out

A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar, do not extinguish it.

Leviticus 6.6 (Parashat Tzav)

In memory of the fire upon this altar, every Jewish sanctuary has above its Ark a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light, that burns continuously. Often, it has its own power source so that, were the synagogue to lose power, this small flame would still flicker. It is an omnipresent and unifying symbol of the Jewish people, a sign that we have endured and indeed flourished for thousands of years. And this verse shows us the origin of the commandment to light this Eternal Flame.

To the ancient Israelites – and to the Jews who lived in Judea prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, no book of the Torah was more sacred than Leviticus. To them, offering the sacrifices properly was vital. We will see next week that when Aaron’s sons failed to do so, the punishment was often death. Later rabbis, even after the destruction of the Temple, spent centuries poring over these texts and speculating just how Jews should reconstruct the sacrificial system should the Messiah arrive and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. That work continues, even today (although admittedly at the fringes of Jewish thought).

So as leaders, these early chapter of Leviticus give us an opportunity to ask the question: what happens when old ideas, once vital, become obsolete? Jews do not offer sacrifices any more. So what replaced the sacrificial system? How do Jews worship God? The answer is clear. In brief, Jews worship God through the study of Torah, through Prayer and through acts of Social Justice. Were the sacrificial system to come back somehow, we would have an interesting debate as to the nature of Jewish life and how to cling to God, to be sure.

So in the workforce, what is the parallel? Let’s take one glaring example: Does the law require than any job of consequence go to an able-bodied, white, married (to a woman), Christian male under the age of 50? Of course we have a long way to go before our biases are totally eradicated but we have made great strides in erasing gender, racial and other biases from the workplace. Again, we are far from perfect but hopefully we will not revert anytime soon to a Mad Men style workplace where women are secretaries, blacks are custodians and gay men hide in underground bars after hours.

Yet, when we look back on the management, organizational or leadership styles of now discarded eras, such as the sacrificial times – or even of the early 1960’s – we would be wise not to completely disregard them. For example, amidst the lengthy and difficult reading in our passages this week, we found the gem regarding the Ner Tamid, to keep the light burning upon the Altar, a light that has burnt in the Jewish sanctuary and heart for over 4,000 years continuously. Nothing may be more ancient in our faith!

In the business world of the 1960’s, think about the values of mission, integrity and loyalty to name but three. If anything, these values have increased in importance over the years as our society has changed so dramatically through technology, diversity and political upheaval. With today’s greater sense of entrepreneurship, it is even more important to hold to these values if we want our start-up companies to succeed.

So no matter our position as leaders, we can always find diamonds in the rough. We can draw out these nuggets from what seem to be endless reams of dreary pages and highlight that which is truly inspirational and motivational for ourselves, our families and those whom we touch in a professional capacity. When we do so, we will fulfill our mission and our task as leaders, raising the next generation and propelling all of us to success while building on the foundation laid by those who came before us.

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Each to His Means

And if one’s offering is from the flock, from the sheep or from the goats, for an elevation-offering; he shall offer an unblemished male.

Leviticus 1.10 (Parashat Vayikra)

We begin the third Book of the Torah, Vayikra (Leviticus) with the commandments concerning the Olah, the elevation-offering before God. When bringing this offering, the penitent would literally elevate the animal above his head before placing it upon the altar.

The Torah goes to great pains to detail the three different categories of animals eligible for the Olah: bull, flock (sheep and goats) and birds. Why not list them together since the ritual is basically the same? The medieval Spanish-Jewish scholar, Isaac Abravanel, states that as long as one serves God according to his ability, God rewards the penitent. Indeed, the Talmud states, “It is the same whether one does more or less, provided he intends it for the sake of heaven (Berachot 5b).”

To see how this principle applies in modern times, we need to look no further than the rather controversial topic of a flat (regressive) tax. In theory, it sounds nice; everybody pays the same rate. So if, for example, the flat tax rate is 10% and a person earns $1million, that lucky person would pay $100,000 in taxes. Yet, he would still have $900,000 in spending money. But the person who earns $10,000 in a year would pay $1,000, with only $9,000 to spend on essentials. To balance that inequity, we have a progressive tax; in theory, poorer people pay a lower rate – or even get a refund – and wealthier people pay a larger percentage of their income.

In the Torah, wealthier people, those who afford to sacrifice a bull, were expected to do so. And those who could only afford a goat or a turtle-dove, would offer these animals. This was a progressive sacrificial taxation system (unlike the half-sheqel).

When it comes to leadership, our passage this weeks teaches us that a progressive form of leadership is far better than a regressive one. In other words, we can’t treat everyone the same.While we can certainly hold everyone to certain basic expectations (sales targets, behavioral standards, dress code, etc.), our daily interactions can – and should – be different. If I know that Suzie is high maintenance and needs constant positive reinforcement while Owen detests micromanagement, than as a leader I must treat them differently if I want them – and our team – to flourish.

Finally, the Torah portion implies that, no matter one’s economic position, nobody is exempt from their responsibilities. Everyone can find a turtle-dove to bring as a sacrifice. And today, nobody can weasel out of basic responsibilities. But as leaders, our job is not to make sure that our people do the minimum; it to reach for the stars so that everyone in our orbit reaches for and touches the stars.

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An Attitude of Gratitude

“The people are bringing too much for the work that the Lord has commanded us to perform!”

Exodus. 36.5 (Parashat Vayakhel-Pekude)

Have your ever been to a fundraising event where the person standing on the dais says, “OK. We’ve raised enough money tonight. You can all go home now!” Personally, I have never experienced this moment – and I never expect to do so. Furthermore, there is not one professional development specialist in North America who would ever confess to having raised enough money for his or her non-profit; there is never enough.

And there is a good reason for this – and it is not greed. While Moses’ chief designer Bezalel may have had a surplus of riches for the Tabernacle (and we can understand ordering twice as much tile as we need for a flooring project, for example), the major goal of fundraising is not just to reach a monetary target, it is to develop a spirit of giving. Any development specialist will prefer a smaller gift, given annually, than a large gift, given once. A regular, annual gift allows for the possibility of greater attachment to the organization and the possibility of larger gifts in the future. One big gift, no matter how generous, risks the chance of the donor just walking away without any future benefit. So, for example, I would rather receive a $100,000 gift spread out over 10 years than as a one-time donation. This gives me the chance to involve the donor in the activities of my organization and to increase the gift over time, perhaps even doubling it or extending the life of the donation for another 10 years to a $200,000 gift.

But an even more fundamental question must be asked: Why did the Israelites give so generously? It seems to me that Moses was a master fundraiser. He developed an “attitude of gratitude” among the people (not my phrase). People donate because they want to give; if not, it’s a tax or an expense. I have to pay the IRS and buy groceries; I don’t have to give money to,say, the Southern Poverty Law Center to fight bigotry in America (a worthy cause). But I met the founder of the SPLC years ago, believe in their cause and am grateful that they do the work that they do. So I donate to their organization. I do not believe in white power organizations, for example, so they don’t get my money!

It is important to remember that we can be leaders in non-profit and religious organizations just as we can be leaders in our businesses and families. But to do so, we have to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in those whom we purport to lead. It is much harder to do so because these organizations are voluntary; people choose to join us – and there is nothing that we can do to keep them from leaving us. And, just as important, we do not give them money to let us lead them; if anything, we take their money and hope that they follow us. And if they don’t like the direction of our group, they will either vote us out or just leave; we are truly their servants.

So when we lead non-profit and religious organizations, let us remember that we are truly the servants of those whom we lead. And when we endeavor to develop an attitude of gratitude among them, we will reach the point when the giving will overwhelm the need – but we will of course always find a greater need in order to cultivate greater gratitude – until the day when our cause will, with God’s grace, become irrelevant.

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Half a Sheqel

Everyone who passes through the census a half sheqel of the sacred sheqel … as a portion to the Lord.

Exodus 30.14 (Parashat Ki Tissa)

It is interesting that the Torah requires a flat tax, that every Israelite male contribute one-half sheqel (about 6-8 grams of silver) annually for the Tabernacle. By nature, this tax is regressive; the wealthy will have an easy time paying this while the poor will struggle. yet every man must pay it.

Why? Why should the poor pay a tax, even if they cannot afford it? And why should the wealthy not pay their fair share? There are several answers postulated for this: First of all, it is important that everyone pay something in support of the Tabernacle. This contributes to a sense of a person’s self-worth; when a person contributes, even half-a sheqel, he or she feels a part of the group and not an interloper.This is comparable to a person using a health club as a guest – and then continuing to use the facilities for free while others pay to keep the building open.

A second reason why the wealthy do not pay more is because they are expected to pay on other occasions. On other sacrificial occasions, Israelites can bring a sheep, a goat or even a pigeon or grains, depending upon their economic circumstances. At these times, the wealthy would bring animals while the poor would bring birds or grains..

Finally, why half a sheqel and not a full sheqel? Here is where the value of leadership enters! Many commentators have noted that two halves make a whole. While this is most obvious, it also means that we are not complete unless we find our other half; as long as we do not join with others, we cannot do our job: at work, in worship or especially in love. Only when our half-sheqel joins with other half-sheqels can we be most effective; a half-sheqel cannot be successful alone.

So we as leaders need to realize that we are only half a sheqel; we need other half-sheqels, other people, to join with us: in our work, our worship and our families.When we share the burdens, delegate the tasks and share in the successes, then we will be true and effective leaders. When everyone contributes, we will realize every person’s talents and move forward to realize and surpass our greatest goals and dreams.

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Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

You shall holy vestments for Aaron  your brother, for honor and splendor.

Exodus 28.2 (Parashat Tetzaveh)

In much of the business world today, one is expected to wear “dressy casual” clothing. In male-oriented terms, this means that one might wear khaki slacks and either a sport or polo shirt to work, accompanied by loafers or, in Texas, cowboy boots. Ties are rarely seen and blue jeans are discouraged, if not entirely forbidden. Women are seen wearing slacks or casual skirts, along with flats or stylish boots; dresses and suits are rarely seen at work. It is only in the most formal of places, such as the courthouse and funeral home, where formal dress is still required.

We should not attach any value statement to this; it is simply a function of today’s society that we are more casual than previous generations; perhaps our grandchildren will revert to formal dress: who knows! But what we all know is that we stand out like a sore thumb if we wear a suit to a pool party or a bikini to a funeral; all of us need to know how to dress properly for any occasion.

Such is the case in the Torah with Aaron, the first High Priest. Aaron was the recipient of some very specific Divine fashion advice; he had to wear certain clothing when he performed his priestly functions. While much of his clothing was symbolic, none of it (with the exception perhaps of the Urim and Thummim) was functional; it had no intrinsic theurgic powers.

So why could Aaron not wear blue jeans while officiating at the Altar? Like all officiants in every faith, Aaron wore symbolic clothing to differentiate himself from the faithful. His clothing symbolized his status as the High Priest. While his sons also wore special clothing, Aaron’s vestments were unique; only he could wear them. In fact, the Torah tells us later that when he died, his son Pinhas took his vestments upon himself only after a solemn and elaborate ceremony.

In other words, if we were Israelites standing on the outer fringes of the Tabernacle, watching the daily sacrifice, we would be able to distinguish Aaron from among the Priests and Levites standing about the Altar. That is the power of his clothing.

Now, let’s think about our communities of faith. In most faith communities, it is often easy to tell who is the religious leader: it is the one wearing the tallit, the robe, the stole, etc. In our more casual world, it is the only person wearing a tie or dress, perhaps.

Notice that the religious leader’s clothing is also often unique. When I first entered the rabbinate, we rabbis always wore robes when officiating at a service. About 15 years ago, I discarded that practice in the interest of greater informality and comfort. Yet, I kept my tallit and that has distinguished me as a prayer leader; it is an interesting shift.

When I am at other, non-rabbinic jobs during the week, I see that managers and supervisors often dress slightly better than front-line employees. And their bosses almost always wear a tie if they are men. The unwritten rule of leadership is that one dresses more formally as one rises up the ladder.

So today’s lesson is this: Do not dress for the job that you have; dress for the job that you want. If everyone around you comes to work in jeans and a T-shirt, start wearing slacks and a Polo shirt. If they wear khakis, wear dress slacks and a sport shirt. Keep one step ahead in your dress code so that your bosses start to assume that you are one of them, simply by your clothing, and not one of the many. Surprisingly, this trick works so I encourage you to go to your favorite clothing store this weekend and upgrade your wardrobe.

Shabbat Shalom!

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My Sanctuary

They shall make me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”

Exodus 25.8 (Parashat Terumah)

In this rather mundane and technical portion, we learn the details about the construction of the Tabernacle, the traveling House of Worship that the Israelites constructed in the Wilderness and brought with them into the Land of Israel. Most the the portion details the blueprints for the Menorah, the Ark, various utensils and the like.

However, this one verse, bound at the beginning of the portion, sets forward the purpose of this entire endeavor: Build the Sanctuary so that God may dwell among the people. It is the very reason for this massive yet confounding design and construction project.

I often wonder why we do the things that we do. For example, what is our higher purpose for going to work in the morning? Sometimes I wonder myself. But in a selfish sense, the purpose of going to work is to support my family; life would be much harder if I did not get up every morning and go to my job.

But once we get to work, there is a purpose in work itself. Every job has a higher purpose if we only look for it. For example, it’s easy to see the purpose in being a doctor or a First Responder: to save lives. But think of a trash collector; what is the higher purpose there? Think for a moment what happens when the garbage workers go out on strike. What happens to our trash? It’s aesthetically displeasing and, more important, a terrible health hazard. So we should not disparage the trash collectors; without them, our world would be much uglier and we would be much sicker.

As leaders, it is up to us to create the mission statements and visions of purpose by which we can lead our teams. Of course, we should include these teams, families and congregations in the creation of these statements but, as leaders, the primary responsibility falls to us. We will find that our organizations and families will function smoother, morale will rise and we will be relieved of many of the burdens of leadership that a muddled path creates.

While God may not descend and dwell among us, perhaps we will live little lower than the angels when we clarify our purpose and live for a higher calling. Living in such a way will bring blessing to us, our people and all whom we touch.

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And these are the ordinances which you will place before them.

— Exodus 21.1 (Parashat Mishpatim)

In 1783, the former British colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America were enjoying heady times. They had just defeated the mighty British Empire in their War of Independence; while many former colonists lamented the end of British rule, there was celebration in the streets when General Washington accepted General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.

But then, I imagine that the new freed colonists awoke the next day and said, “What’s next for us?” They quickly learned that with freedom comes responsibility.

Such is the story of Moses and the newly freed Israelite slaves. When they escaped Egypt, they danced and sang before God; they were exuberant and inspired. But then came the cold (or in their case, rather hot) reality of desert life and the necessity to adopt a code of personal and communal conduct in order to survive. At Sinai, God presented Moses and the people with the 10 Commandments, a way to conduct oneself in order to curry Divine favor.

But more was needed; this is why we  have our Parasha, Mishpatim, this week. It speaks of Divine justice, to be sure. But even more important, much of the portion concerns relations between people: rule for indentured servitude, crime and punishment, etc. All this is very human, yet God sets forth an important path for the Israelites to take. If they do so, they enhance the meaning of the 10 Commandments and, in the process, draw closer to God and to each other.

In our world, such an audacious beginning, the start of a revolutionary way of life, occurs at several nodal points in our lives. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to recognize these times and establish the ground rules for their aftermaths.

In our family circles, we establish informal ground rules when we get married: who sleeps on the right side of the bed, how do we keep the house clean, where do we work and, especially, when do we have children? In the business world, we might start a new business, change jobs or receive a promotion – or even acquire an existing company that has its own established rules and culture.

And in the religious world, forming a congregation, welcoming a new clergy leader or deciding to raise funds to build a building all require the leadership needed to establish – or refame – existing rules. These are often difficult tasks: even our Founding Fathers had to try a second time before they wrote the Constitution and created the United States.

So after the heady celebrations and the champagne-filled parties to start a marriage, business or even a religious institution, we as leaders need to sit with our stakeholders and establish the rules of conduct, to create the culture that will bring success to our endeavor. Often, this has to be a formal event, with clear goals in mind. Other times, informal consent is all that is needed – such as how to orient the toilet paper in the apartment! But if successful, we will bring great success to all that we touch.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Not Good!

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you do is not good.”

Exodus 18.17 (Parashat Yitro)

Sometimes, words can fail us. An early Aramaic translation of this passage, that of Onkelos, states the Hebrew thusly: You are not setting an example by your actions. The Hebrew original, the Aramaic interpretation and the English translation convey that sense that Moses, as he sat and judged the entire people, was doing a disservice to himself, his people and to God. By paying attention to matters both trivial and tremendous, Moses had no time to exercise his leadership or to move the Israelites forward.

As I write this blog, we here in the United States are beginning to debate the merits of a Supreme Court nominee. Without delving into the politics of the matter, all of us realize that the Supreme Court should not be hearing cases involving our speeding tickets! Their purview is reserved, quite correctly, for only the most transformative of cases; other cases are best left to the lower courts.

And so it was for Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, helps Moses to establish tribal panels that adjudicated within each tribe. Eventually, a three-tiered system came into being, with Moses being the Biblical version of the Supreme Court. Jethro convinced Moses to delegate, to push the little stuff back to the tribal courts so that he would have the time and energy to focus on the big picture, namely what God had in store for the Jewish people.

Interestingly, this story comes just before the momentous giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai. Even without this revelation, Moses was able to discern the Will of God – and to teach this to the people by training and then delegating responsibility. Then, when the Torah came into existence in just a few short verses from this passage, the Israelite people would be ready for a more formal system of laws. Was t his dictatorial? I think not since Moses endeavored to speak in the name of God, not in the name of Moses.

So as leaders, we learn many lessons from this short but often forgotten story in Exodus:

  • Speak truth to power. If Jethro could abjure Moses and convince him to change his ways, we should not be afraid to chastize our leaders – at any level. Abraham, Jacob and now Moses even rebuked God on occasion – and got away with it! A mere mortal should be child’s play for us.
  • Listen when someone wants to help you. You are not obligated to agree with their ideas but at least give them a chance to express them. We have to credit Moses here with changing his ways after Jethro offered to set up the lower courts.
  • Focus on the big picture; let others handle the details. As a leader you are obligated to create and act upon a vision for your company, family or even religious institution. If  you find yourself stuck in the weeds, like Moses was, there will never be an opportunity to enact your vision.
  • Give credit and show gratitude. When Jethro heard all of what God had done for the Israelites, he offered a sacrifice of gratitude. And he wasn’t even a Hebrew! Remember that ultimately it is not about us; it is about our organization and the people within it who support it and make it successful.

Perhaps this passage appears before the giving of the 10 Commandments so that Moses will see that God was not giving the 10 Commandments to him, per se, but rather to the entire Israelite nation. That is why he brought the Commandments down from Mount Sinai instead of staying on the top of the mountain with them: the Law was meant for everyone and Moses, as chief lawgiver, was to push the law downward to the people.

So we learn this week that delegation, training and responsibility are to be pushed downward if we are to be successful. This strengthens our bench, creates a new generation of leaders and enhances our status as caring and nurturing leaders.

Shabbat Shalom!

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