Posts Tagged With: Egypt

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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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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Names

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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Restraint

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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Dreamweavers

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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TAKE THE INITIATIVE

Happy Hanukkah!!!

We cannot sit back and wait for others to solve problems that we know exist. Neither can we let problems fester when they affect us, our team or our community in a negative way. When we take the initiative, good things will happen – and soon!

Judah said to Israel, his father, “Send the lad with me and let us stand up and go so that we might live and not die – us, you and our children. I will guarantee him with my own hand, you can demand it of me; if I do not bring him back to you and stand before you then I have sinned before you for all time.” Then Israel their father replied to them, “If so, then do this. Take the fruit of the land and go down to the man as a tribute – a little balsam, a little honey,, wax, lotus, nuts and almonds. And take a double portion of silver with you as well as the money returned to you in your baggage from you last journey. Perhaps it was a mistake. Take your brothers and rise up and return to that man and may El Shaddai give you mercy before that man so that he may release to you your brothers as well as Benjamin. And I, if I am bereaved, I will be bereaved.”

Judah found himself in terrible straits. Joseph had taken Simeon and Levi hostage in Egypt. Judah knew that he could not procure additional grain to feed his family unless he brought Benjamin to Egypt to appease Joseph. Of course, bringing Benjamin before his disguised brother ran the risk of driving his father to his grave should anything happen to Benjamin.

Yet, there was no choice; the famine was so severe and Judah had  to take this risk. He had to risk his brother’s life, his father’s well-being and his own life in order to save his family. He did not know what awaited him in Egypt yet he took the initiative and left to see the powerful Prime Minister, the hidden Joseph.

We do not have to wait for desperate times in order to emulate Judah. We can act now to make our lives and that of our families, our congregations and our organizations better. We can see that when we take the initiative in life, good things will happen – and fast!  As servant-leaders, we cannot wait for events to come to us; to be effective, we must lead and control events to the best of our abilities.

Stuff happens and often we can control our reaction to it. For example, an employee is habitually late for work. We can tolerate her tardiness and just laugh it off or we can count up the missed time and realize how much we lose in productivity and team morale by tolerating this behavior. Either way, we are reacting to missed time instead of controlling the situation.

Let me elaborate on this example. The bane of a sales person’s existence is getting on the phone and making “cold calls”, going down a list of names and trying to convince people to become interested in the product. Most often, the call is met with a busy signal, a voicemail or a wrong number message. Only rarely does a sales person talk to a live lead. And it is even rarer that the lead agrees to an appointment. Consequently, a sales person often makes over 100 cold calls in order to gain one appointment. It sounds dreary (and it is!) but it really takes only an hour to make 100 calls due to so many calls going unanswered.

So if a salesperson is regularly 30 minutes late to work, that means he or she misses an opportunity to make the equivalent of 50 cold calls daily – or setting 2-3 appointments per week. Two – three weekly appointments often translate to one sale. On an annual basis, this means that being 30 minutes late costs the sales person – and the team – almost 50 sales a year. Think of the lost opportunities to serve people – and the lost revenue!

We could use the same analogy if we greet people as they entered the door of our store – or house of worship; it does not matter. As servant-leaders, however, we can control an event such as this one by making one of two decisions: 1) we can tolerate the behavior and risk decreased sales and friction on the team or 2) coach the person to arrive on time. And if Solution #2 does not work, then it’s time to make a personnel change for the good of the team.

So Judah teaches us that it’s not only how we control events that is important; it is how we control our reaction to events that matters. After all, the Israelites could have starved to death; that was an option.

But then we would never have wound up in Egypt! Judah seized the initiative and found a way to feed his family while protecting Jacob and Benjamin: he offered himself as a hostage if necessary. While I would not recommend this course of action today, it turned out to be a life altering decision for him, his family and for the entire Jewish people as it set the stage for the descent into Egypt and the eventual liberation from slavery under God and Moses.

Not bad for a man who was just trying to survive a drought.

Rabbi Jordan Parr is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Odessa, TX. The opinions expressed in this blog are his. Rabbi Parr is available for speaking engagements at rabbiparr@gmail.com.

 

Coming soon: Lessons in Biblical Leadership – The Podcast!!! Stay tuned for details.

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