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.