Turn Around Plan

So God turned the people towards the desert of the Sea of Reeds…

Exodus 13.18 (Parashat Beshallach)

What is the quickest way for 600,000 Israelites to leave Egypt? If we looked at a map, we would notice that the Land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was along the Mediterranean Coast. The easiest and quickest route would have been to walk along the sea shore until they arrived in the Land of Israel.

But it did not happen that way. The Torah provides us with a wonderful marker in time when it states in the prior verse that the Philistines were already living along the coast. The Philistines were a powerful, advanced civilization – possibly of Greek origin – who built large cities, raised great armies and were feared for centuries. For example, Goliath was a Philistine; they were Israel’s nemesis for centuries.

Whether the Philistines were living along the modern-day Gaza Strip at the time of the Exodus – or a later writer, who knew of the Philistines, inserted them into the story to provide a point of reference – is not important. What is important is that this provides an explanation as to why the Israelites had to cross the desert and the Sea of Reeds in order to become free.

In other words, God saw a need to pivot, to change course in order to achieve success. This pivot led to the great defeat of the Egyptian Army, the Song at the Sea and, most important, the revelation at Sinai. In this instance, a change of direction was a marvelous idea.

As leaders, we too should look for opportunities to pivot, to change direction when it becomes necessary. A product is not selling and a cut in price isn’t doing the trick? Pivot – remove the product from inventory, redesign or repackage it or even rename it: a pivot changes the perception of the product and reframes the discussion in your favor.

Let me put it another way: if God could change course, so can we! If God is not too stubborn as to lead our people into certain destruction, than we should have the wisdom to know when we should change course as well. Times change and so does God – and so should we.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Hardening of the Heart

So the Eternal said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh for I have caused his heart to harden as well as the heart of his servants in order that these two signs be close to him.

Exodus 10.1 (Parashat Bo)

One of the enduring questions in the Book of Exodus has to do with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Time and again, God states that the Eternal One will harden Pharaoh’s heart prior to one of the 10 Plagues – including the final plague, the death of the first-born Egyptian boys.

Simpy put, why did God just have Pharaoh let the people go? Why did it take 10 plagues and Divine intervention to STOP the Israelites from leaving? It does not really make sense.

Unless we look at it from the perspective of Divine and human authority. When Moses first went before Pharaoh, turning rods into snakes and calling down the first few plagues, God was working to establish authority, both Divine and human. After all, Pharaoh, the Egyptians and even the Israelites knew nothing of this new God, nor of Moses. They had to put on a show in order to impress the world with their strength and power.

But after a few plagues, the Israelites, Egyptians and certainly Pharaoh knew of God’s awesome power and of Moses’ ability to channel that power. So why continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart? Perhaps it was to reinforce God’s power over the university. Perhaps it was to reinforce Moses’ authority over the Israelites .

But perhaps it was to show, as we will painfully learn next week, that freedom does not come without a price. The message of the Exodus clearly is that God intends for human beings to live as free people, unhindered by the bounds of a corrupt government or hostile populace; freedom is the ideal and God just demands that humans live in a state of freedom, Israelite or not.By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God demonstrates mastery over the universe and ultimate control of human affairs. While we do not often feel or act like God’s puppets, the possibility of becoming God’s puppet, as did Pharaoh, always exists.

As leaders today, we can step back from the Divine element and realize that when we double down, when we remain relentless despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,when our vision – no matter how noble – propels us into the wrong corners of the world,  will see our greatest ambitions and plans laid out on the scrap heap of history. If something goes wrong in an otherwise ethical and promising endeavor, fix it! If the endeavor is unethical, scrap it! And if the ethical endeavor ultimately fails, let’s realize that failure and start with something new. As long as we learn from failure, we will ultimately become successful in achieving our greater goals.

Pharaoh doubled-down and it cost him his kingdom, his son and his life. Such is the cost of being stubborn in the face of contradictory evidence; it will inevitably lead to disaster. Let us hope that we can see our way out of such a foolhardy enterprise.

Shabbat Shalom!

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God said to Moses and said to him, “I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as Es Shaddai but my name, Adonai, I did not reveal to them.”

— Exodus 6. 2-3 (Parashat Va’era)

Every person is given a name – and God also receives several names in the Bible. Abraham called God “El Shaddai,” which means either the God of the Mountaintop or, believe it or not, the God of the Breast. So, the double-meaning of El Shaddai is, at one and the same time, a powerful diety on high and a proximate, nurturing, personal Diety.

The listing of the Forebearers, of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, is also worthy of mention. By listing them individually, the Torah indicates that each of our ancestors experienced God in his own way. While the name stayed the same, the conception of God changed.

With Moses, the change was even more radical. At the Burning Bush (read last week), God’s name was “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” a name that, due to the vagaries of classical Hebrew grammar, could mean “I am what I am,” or “I am what I will be,” or even “I will be that which I will be” – and many other possible meanings. The name of God is certainly open to interpretation here.

So when we come to our verse, God’s name becoming Adonai (Lord), as opposed to Elohim (God) or El Shaddai (or even Ehyeh), Moses was experiencing the Divine in a different way. Not only was he re-interpreting God’s name – he was actually changing it. From being a pastoral, tribal God  – El Shaddai – Moses transformed God into Adonai, the God of the entire world, one who acts in and sometimes directs history. In one way, Moses took God from a local Diety to a global Force.

As leaders, we can learn from Moses. In this case, we learn how to reframe our parameters, ow we can literally change the game by changing the boundaries of our work, home or even house of worship. This is, by the way, a great negotiating tactic, guaranteed to stymie your opposition.

Moses in essence reframed the argument about God. He needed a Diety that was all-powerful, one that could confront Pharaoh and defeat the most powerful man on earth.

Now, one might suggest that the exact opposite happened: that God had hid the true Divine Name until Moses arrived. Perhaps; it’s an honest interpretation of the text – and makes it truly God-centered. But for us, leaders and followers alike, we need to reframe the situation so that we can be successful.

A quick example: I once negotiated a contract with a wonderful congregation – which could not afford to give me large pay raise. So, to reframe the discussion, I suggested that in return for a smaller pay raise, I would just add two additional weeks of vacation. That broke the logjam in the discussions and we settled the contract terms within the hour.

So as leaders, we can reframe the discussion to suit our purposes. We can call upon our higher powers, since God is manifest in infinite ways,  in order to make us better leaders. When we affirm a greater power than ourselves, we become better leaders, humbled before God but honored among those who put our trust in us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Know Your Past

And there arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.

— Exodus 1.8 (Parashat Shemot)

The Talmud (Sotah 11a), that ancient wellspring of Jewish law and lore, suggests that this new Pharaoh was either ignorant of Joseph’s contribution to Egyptian history or willingly chose to ignore Joseph’s contributions. Either way, either by ignorance or deliberate design, the ancient Israelites were consigned to slavery and potential extermination.

Let’s look at each of these equally valid possibilities from the perspective of a leader. If the new Pharaoh truly did not know his history – and yet was fated to lead the Egyptian nation – he operated at a severe disadvantage, one that harmed him tremendously. As George Santayana said (1905),

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Of course, Santayana (and later by none other than Sir Winston Churchill) did not believe that forgetting the past could lead to anything but tragedy; history’s victories would never be repeated in the vainglorious attempt to forget the past.

Even worse, perhaps, is the attempt to rewrite history. By choosing to forget Joseph, Pharaoh enabled Egypt to commit horrendous acts against the Israelites, such as enslavement and the death of the newborn males.In the end, this willful whitewashing also led to tragedy.

The failure to confront historical reality is a great danger for leaders, even today. In our time, we see “fake news” become real, lies that take on lives of their own and a negation of the historical American compact that pose a real threat to this democratic experiment. in the micro world of work or family, the destruction of family or work culture leads to their very unraveling, calling into question the very fabic of our society.

So rather than deny history, leaders are expected to embrace history, both good and bad, in order to learn from it and to help government, business, family and religion to progress. When we as leaders offer a bit of history – whether it be from world events or simply work or family stories – we are giving the very essence of what leaders do: embrace and transmit the historical record so that those that follow us embrace the values for which we stand.

When someone as radical and different as a Pharaoh who know not Joseph rises to power – in whatever context – all of us need to beware. This leader does not have our benefit at heart – only his. For to deny history is to exalt one’s ego; this is a situation that we as leaders cannot endure; it leads to the destruction of our enterprise. And as leaders, we have the power and the obligation to stand up to such leaders and repair the tears in the moral universe that such damage causes.

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But Joseph could not compose himself in front of everyone who stood before him…

Genesis 45.1 (Parashat Vayiggash)

After Judah’s impassioned plea (to free Benjamin) before Joseph, the vizier of Egypt apparently lost control of his emotions. He cleared the room of his attendants and declared, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” So dumbfounded were the brothers, they could hardly answer him.

Joseph’s attendants were, perhaps, impediments to Joseph’s revelation. In fact, three of the greatest Jewish Biblical commentators weighed in on this passage – with very different but equally valid interpretations.

Rashi, the premier Jewish Biblical and Talmudic commentator, stated that Joseph was ready to reveal himself but he could not embarrass his brothers by announcing his identity in front of bystanders. In other words, he was concerned for his brothers’ privacy; Rashi knew from the rabbis of the Talmud that embarrassing a person in public was the gravest of sins.

Rashbam, who followed Rashi, stated that Joseph was concerned instead with his own image. He did want want to show undue emotion in front of this attendants and thereby lose his source of authority.

Finally, the Ramban, a medieval Spanish commentator,  reversed this thinking and wrote that Joseph’s attendants joined the brothers in pleading for Benjamin’s freedom. Joseph could not resist their combined efforts and summarily dismissed his attendants.

So which one is right? All of them! Such is the nature of Jewish commentary in that any opinion is a valid as another, provided that opinion is grounded in Torah.But each commentator also provides us with three different ways to look at leadership.

Rashi implies that the welfare of Josephs’ brothers is paramount. We can translate that thought into the modern axiom of putting employees first. Were this Joseph, Inc., I would presume that there would be little to no employee turnover.

Rashbam treats Joseph in a harsher way. He leaves us with the thought that Joseph put his image above everything else. By removing personal feelings from his leadership style, Rashbam implies that this was a real hindrance to Joseph’s success as a leader.

Finally, Ramban informs us that Joseph actually took advice, not just from his brothers but also from his attendants, those who worked with Joseph on a daily basis. In today’s parlance, this would be called collaborative leadership, giving everyone a voice before making a final decision. By working in this way, everyone around Joseph would feel that he was a stakeholder in the decision; even if he did not agree with it, his voice was heard.

So where do each of us stand on this tripod of leadership styles? Granted, there are many more variations of leadership styles but for now, consider the employee welfare model of Rashi, Rashbam’s “me first” leadership style of Ramban’s collaborative leadership. Perhaps we embody parts of several styles, including those not mentioned here, but hopefully we see ourselves in these analyses.

So the fun of studying Bible is that we can find ourselves in every story; we just have to look at the story and then look in the mirror. This week, we discovered varying leadership styles and confronted our own leadership roles. As we go through the Torah, we will continue to learn from our ancestors – and learn about ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

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So Pharaoh sent for and summoned Joseph…

Genesis 41.14 (Parashat Mikketz)

One of my absolute favorite musicals is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Many of us might remember the Donnie Osmond version, immortalized on Broadway and in a film production. I think I have seen it about 50 times – as well as having seen several stage productions.

While Sir Andrew takes many liberties with the Biblical text, i cannot help but smile every time the musical comes to introducing Pharaoh, a king portrayed by an Elvis impersonator! With its seemingly endless changes of musical styles, from French cafes to reggae, Joseph’s encounter with Pharaoh is pure Elvis, rocking and rolling – even down to the hairdo! After all, Pharaoh is the original King.

Pharaoh narrates his dreams to Joseph in true rockabilly style and then Joseph, in his trademark trope, interprets these dreams – and worms his way into Pharaoh’s inner circle at the same time. Both in the musical and in the original text, Joseph seizes the opportunity to escape prison and become “Pharaoh’s Number Two.”

While we usually admire Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams – as well as admire his ambition – we often overlook what Pharaoh did in order to have his dreams interpreted. First, he went to his courtiers, who could not help him. Then, the Chief Cupbearer, who had been imprisoned with Joseph (and had certainly benefited from a private session with him) suggested that Pharaoh spring Joseph from prison in order to bring order to Pharaoh’s sleepy time chaos.

What matters here is that Pharaoh sought and received advice. This is the mark of a true leader; he is not afraid to take and act upon what others suggest to him. To be clear, while Pharaoh undoubtedly remained Egypt’s sole decision-maker, by relying on his advisors – and even upon a jailed Hebrew slave – he managed to keep Egypt a great power as the famine approached and then descended upon Egypt. This willingness to take Joseph’s advice was his most admirable trait.

So as we aspire to leadership – and become leaders – it behooves us to follow Pharaoh’s example and seek out proper advice. Once we receive and act upon this advice, this collaboration will make us even more successful in our respective missions. Remember: if Pharaoh and Joseph could make a great team, we can create a great team as well. All it takes is a willingness to collaborate – and a dream.

“Any dream will do.”

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A Face of Many Colors

But Israel loved Joseph more than all his brothers for he was the son of his (Jacob’s) old age. And he made him a colored cotton garment.

— Genesis 37. 3 (Parashat Vayeishev)

A father should not single out one child among his others.

— Talmud Shabbat 10b

Jealousy takes many forms – but rarely is it more intense than during a sibling rivalry. Throughout Genesis, a recurring theme is the struggle between brothers – and even sisters: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and even Leah and Rachel. So when it comes to the generation of Joseph, we should have expected an virulent form of sibling rivalry; we definitely found it.

A second recurring theme in Genesis is parental favoritism. Abraham, due to Sarah’s insistence, banished Ishmael in favor of Isaac; Isaac favored Esau while Rebecca favored Jacob and now Jacob favored Joseph. Again, this favoritism fueled the intense sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph, of course, told tales about his brothers, wore a fancy coat, commonly called the “coat of many colors”, lorded dreams over his family and did not shepherd the herd as sons were expected to do. Like his mother, he was a homebody, protected by his father from the rigors of the fields.

As leaders (and as parents), we should know better. We know that favoritism in the workplace is destructive. When a leader openly shows preference for one – or a small group – of workers over others, the entire workplace suffers.

For example, if a sales team is dependent upon outside leads, the team leader might have great power over who has the opportunity to make money. Assigning leads, while the function of a sales manager, often has the perception – if not the presence – of favoritism. While it might be a legitimate policy that the top sellers get the best leads, when struggling or new team members are denied the opportunity to succeed, the entire team might fall apart as the manager will have to spend needless time recruiting and training new salespeople, morale (and consequently sales) will decline and the entire operation (including the manager’s job) is put at risk.

In the larger world, favoritism in promotions, in job assignments (e.g., who gets to spend a month working in Hawaii on the company’s dime?) and especially in compensation can wreck a company. It is up to the leader to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and has equal opportunity to succeed.

So, unlike Jacob, whom the Bible openly accuses of favoritism, we as leaders and parents can inspire honesty, increase morale as well as attract and retain quality workers by putting forth objective criteria for success. Even if we do have our favorites, we still have to put our personal feelings aside for the good of the organization. When Jacob failed to do this, he lost his child for 20 years.

We can do better.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Biblical WWE

Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

Genesis 32.25 (Parashat Vayishlach)

Last week, we discussed Jacob’s dream of the ladder, rooted in the earth and reaching up to heaven. Angels were ascending and descending on it. The climax of this story, of course, is God’s promise of the covenant to Jacob – as well as a promise of restoration in his homeland.

This week, we learn of another dream where Jacob is left alone. This time, he is returning to Canaan. After 20 years, he took his wives, their handmaidens, all the children and quite a few sheep back home. When he received word of Esau’s approach, however, and the fact that he had 400 men with him, Jacob took defensive measures. He separated his family into two camps and prepared for the worst: a decades-delayed encounter with the twin brother he had so egregiously conned in days gone past. Jacob still remembered Esau’s threat of murder – and I am sure that when the messenger told him that Esau was approaching with an army, all of Jacob’s worst fears returned to the surface.

So if we were psychologists, we might say that Jacob had a horrible nightmare and wrestled with his own thoughts; so much so that he even dislocated his hip in the process! Were we Biblical literalists, we might infer that Jacob indeed wrestled with an angel (the Talmudic rabbis claim that perhaps he wrestled with Satan himself), whom God sent in order to test him.

We can, however, take another tack, between secular psychology and fundamentalism. As leaders, we can ask: what wounds us? What inner demons possess us, even to the extent that they disable us and could even lead us astray, were we to let them go unchecked?

Every leader has his or her demons that constantly threaten to destroy her or him. We might call these demons by various names – hubris, ego, insecurity, etc. – but these demons are part of the human condition and have been with us since the dawn of time. They are not going to disappear overnight.

Jacob, for all of his wrestling, came out of the experience a changed man, his name even changed from Jacob – heel-holder – to Israel – God-wrestler. A heel holder has the connotation of a person being, let’s face it, a heel. He’s not very nice. But when Jacob’s name changes to Israel, Yisrael, he becomes one who confronts God. He takes his place in the line of Abraham, who confronted God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Most important, Jacob establishes a pattern whereby any Jew who followed him is obligated to challenge his or her fellow human beings – and even God – in order to make the world a better place.

Alone with his thoughts, Jacob became a God-wrestler. Alone with our thoughts, we too can wrestle with God, as it were, when it comes time to make the truly big decisions in life. These decisions are not, by the way, necessarily related to business; they are instead related to family. Just as Jacob put the welfare of his family before his own pursuits, so do we, when we make the truly important decisions in life, place our family first: if we are offered the chance to move for work advancement, for example, we first consider the effect it will have on our families. Do we uproot our families if it means a total disruption in our childrens’ lives? Do we really want to be road warriors and miss those soccer games?

Sometimes we just have to be alone with our thoughts in order to put our priorities in order. It is when we have our reality check, when we – like Jacob – put our priorities in order. So be sure to take a few minutes every day, just to be alone. It is an important routine and one that will keep us grounded – and out of the wrestling ring!

Shabbat Shalom.

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Regarding a Ladder

He dreamt and behold! A ladder was planted in the earth and its top reached towards heaven and behold! angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Genesis 28.12 (Parashat Vayetze)

After absconding with Esau’s birthright, Jacob was forced to flee eastward towards his mother’s ancestral homeland, Padan-Aram, in present day Iraq. With only a rock for a pillow, Jacob imagined this wondrous ladder, with angels going up and down, its base planted firmly in the earth and its top reaching to heaven. Further, God was standing above the ladder and showered Jacob with the promise of the Divine Covenant: the Land and People of Israel.

Now Jacob was not traveling in the manner that befits our patriarchs. Abraham came to Canaan in a caravan; his servant Eleazar returned to Padan-Aram in a glorious caravan in order to find a bride for Isaac. But Jacob, he was fleeing for his life, with no possessions, no honor, no glory. In his commentary, Rashi states that Jacob was a fugitive, subject both to the whims of nature and the whims of God.

But in actuality, God blessed Jacob at this time. Jacob was at his lowest point: homeless, hungry and afraid. Before, he was too arrogant and spoiled to turn towards God. Now, Jacob needed God’s presence in his life – and God was there for him.

Perhaps this is the symbolism behind the angels ascending and descending. Once again, when we turn to Rashi, he states that the angels of the Land of Israel were ascending to heaven while the angels that would accompany jacob in his exile were descending. It’s a beautiful thought and, if we believe in angels, probably true.

But from a standpoint of leadership, the angels ascending towards heaven symbolized those sheltering aspects of Jacob’s life that actually held him back: his over-attachment to Rebecca, his sibling rivalry with Esau, his distance from Isaac and, most telling, his apparent lack of belief in God. As he was dreaming, he came to the realization that in order to survive, much less lead, Jacob had to attract new angels. Jacob had to surround himself as well with new people, who would bring new thinking to his life and help him to come back eventually to his family in the Land of Canaan.

The mark of a leader therefore is to be able to shed those bad habits – and bad people, if necessary – in order to change one’s life for the better. And if that means shedding angels, so be it. Jacob was able to find God’s blessing only after realizing that he had slept at the “very gate of heaven.” So instead of sleeping as a fugitive, homeless and terrified, Jacob realized that God would commune with him at this – and many other – places.

The blessing of Jacob is to be confident in shedding that which holds us back and to look heavenward for inspiration and sustenance. For when we embrace that which will make us stronger in life, not only will be become better leaders, we will also find grace in the eyes of God.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Esau said to Jacob, “Serve me some of that red stuff because I am so hungry…”

— Genesis 25.30 (Parashat Toldot)

I always try to make red lentil soup for Shabbat Toldot in honor of this story. In order to satiate his hunger, Esau sold his birthright, the privileges of the first-born son, to his twin brother, Jacob for a bowl of stew.

Or perhaps we can read this another way: when Esau came in from the fields, he was so hungry, he was at a disadvantage vis a vis his twin brother. Instead of sharing his lentil stew with his brother as an act of love (most siblings would do this), Jacob connived and extorted Esau’s birthright.

Either way you look at it, the Torah is disgusted with Esau’s behavior. Later, in brutally brusque fashion, the Torah states that Esau “ate, drank, arose and left.” No blessings over the food, no gratitude, nothing. We are left with the feeling that Esau ate and behaved like an animal.

I have been stewing over this story for years (pardon the pun). Like many stories in the Bible – and especially in Genesis – we can look at this exchange as a lesson in sibling rivalry, of the dangers inherent in child rearing when parents choose favorites (the Torah says as much) or the importance of inheritance – or even just good manners – in the Biblical world. But I have a different take, especially when it comes to leadership: Jacob would have been a horrible boss!

Imagine a scenario where you are working for Jacob. Tragedy strikes and you need either some time off to attend to family matters or even a small loan to pay for an unexpected expense. You have been a good and valued employee for years, always loyal and more than willing to put up with Jacob’s excesses because you know that, in time, Jacob will reward you.

So you go to Jacob and ask for some emergency time off – and Jacob says, “No, you cannot have any time off unless you first clean up the break room and reorganize the computerized filing system. Only after you do these things can you leave.” Knowing that you don’t have a choice, you go and find a mop.

Now this is not the way to inspire loyalty. Had Jacob told you, “I’m sorry that you are in trouble. Take as much time as you need. If you need some extra money, just ask; we’ll work out an easy system to repay the loan. Believe me, I value you and want to help in any way I can.” This answer would inspire life-long loyalty; you would gladly clean the break room for this kind of leader!

Instead of embracing his twin brother, Jacob made him grovel and then extorted Esau’s most prized possession, his birthright. This is not the way of the leader. In time, it becomes the reason why Jacob has to flee Isaac’s bedside, when another ruse goes awry.

To think of Jacob as a leader of the Jewish people has always bothered me because Jacob is just not a very trustworthy or even likable person. As a professor of mine once said, Jacob is certainly not someone you would bring home to your mother; he might just steal the silverware!

So while I hold neither Jacob or Esau in high regard, there is a lesson here: When a co-worker is in distress, it is our job as leaders  to comfort him or her and then assist that person in such a time of need. This mitzvah redounds upon us, making us better people, holier people, as we do the right thing for those whose fates lie in our hands.

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