Posts Tagged With: gratitude

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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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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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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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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Many people find it much easier to deal with failure than success. For them, it is easier to fire somebody – or at least retrain them – than to deal with the issues surrounding growth: plant expansion, capitalization, new hires, etc. Or in one’s family, this might mean the marriage of a child, going off to college, a promotion at work or even paying off a car loan! In other words, we are often far more comfortable wallowing in our trough than in climbing out of the gutter and enjoying the fruits of our success. Why?
From the Children of Israel’s half, which Moses divided off from the men that warred (against the Midianites), the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep and 36,000 cattle and 3,500 asses and 16,000 persons– even of the Children of Israel’s half. Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, that kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses. And the officers that were over the thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses; and they said unto Moses: ‘Your servants have taken the sum of the men of war that are under our charge, and there lack not one man of us. And we have brought the LORD’S offering, what every man has taken, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet-rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for our souls before the LORD.’ And Moses and Eleazar the Priest took the gold from them, even all wrought jewels. And all the gold of the gift that they set apart for the LORD, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. — For the men of war had taken booty, every man for himself.– And Moses and Eleazar the Priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the Tent of Meeting, as a remembrance for the Children of Israel before the LORD.

–Numbers 21.42-54 (Parashat Mattot)

Prior to this passage, we read of the Israelites defeating the Midianites in battle. The Israelites make off with a tremendous amount of booty, including jewelry, cattle and slaves. Seemingly, their casualties were also very light.
As a thanksgiving offering, they brought one-fiftieth of their bounty before the Levites – and the officers dedicated their entire cache of spoils. These were given to Eleazar, the High Priest, as a remembrance before God.
All too often, the leadership literature focuses on how to improve productivity and behavior. In other words, how we correct mistakes and train people is paramount to the success of a company. Of course, this is true to a large extent; we focus on making sure that the people that we hire know how to work effectively, affirm the values of the company and live the Mission Statement. In our families, our children are expected the share our values. In our houses of worship, we bond with like-minded believers. And when mistakes happen, we try to correct those mistakes, by counseling, training, re-assignment of tasks or, as a last resort, termination.
But we often find it hard as servant-leaders to deal with success. I’m not talking about rewarding a top producer with a paid vacation to Bora Bora. Incentive trips, quite frankly, have been shown to have a limited effect on production since they affect only a small number of people. And the more incentives that are offered, the less seriously workers take the contest.
What I want to discuss is the fear that many servant-leaders have towards becoming successful. As I stated in my preamble, with success comes growth: added production, more personnel, perhaps a larger facility. In the family, we might be talking about a larger home or perhaps new family members, such as a son-in-law or even grandchildren. Or perhaps the size of our congregation may demand building a new sanctuary or school wing. We all might agree that these are pleasant problems to have – and certainly preferable to layoffs and foreclosures – but many of us fear them and will deliberately sabotage our own efforts at success in order not to deal with the effects of that very success. Certainly we want to be successful but we are afraid of the intermediate steps.
So what can we do as servant-leaders to avoid self-sabotage?
I would recommend that we examine closely this passage. Instead of worrying about the future – conquering the Land of Israel – which would be an overwhelming task, the Israelites instead focused on showing gratitude for what they had already accomplished. This allowed the to realize just how far they had come since their days as Egyptian slaves – they now possessed slaves (in the form of prisoners of war) – and countless amounts of treasure, which they desired to dedicate to God.
Possessing an “attitude of gratitude” allowed the Israelites to plan for the future without a sense of fear. They felt that since they had already accomplished so much, the rest of the journey had to be within reach. And so, they were able to set forth on their path to the Holy Land, secure in their knowledge that God was with them and that they were true servant-leaders for having acknowledged a Higher Power – and a higher calling – to their journey.
So perhaps instead of incentivizing success and then worrying about the ramifications of that success later, we should instead focus upon gratitude for what we have already achieved. This will allow us to consolidate our victories, focus on our best practices and then be able to prepare for future victories, secure in the knowledge that we are that much closer to achieving our ultimate goals and vision. If we encourage our co-workers to share in that gratitude, that may prove to be a far greater incentive than a week in Bora Bora.


Rabbi Jordan Parr is a noted author and teacher.  He is available for workshops, keynotes and lectures at

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