Posts Tagged With: Israel

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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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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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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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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