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Reclaiming Trust: Restore the Judges of Old – Parshas Pinchas

The leadership guru, Jim Collins, in his bestseller, Good to Great, describes something he calls, “The Window and the Mirror.” With good leaders, he explains, when something is going well, they look in the window – out – at all their workers and employees and attribute the success to all of them. When something is going wrong, they look in the mirror; they look at themselves and ask what they could be doing better. A bad leader does the opposite.

A bad leader, when all is well looks at the mirror, and pats him or herself on the back. And when things are not going well, looks out the window and blames everyone else.

When I started out as a rabbi, I was introduced to a different window and mirror analogy. I was speaking to an established national Jewish figure who had accomplished a lot with the different institutions he was affiliated with. He was trying to convey some sage advice to me the rookie rabbi, and this is what he told me. He said, too many leaders spend their entire time looking at their rearview mirror. They are constantly checking to make sure that others are following them, that they’re still there, and in doing so, they’re not able to drive their car – their institution, shul, organization. They’re not actually leading. They’re following. Like a pet dog walking in front of its owner, the dog may be walking in front, but it’s not really leading the way.

Many centrist Democrats were deeply disappointed the other week when their favorite candidate, Joe Biden capitulated to some of the less-centrist ideas of the Democratic party. But who can blame him? Politician’s talking points, both on the right and left, are developed and fine-tuned not by think-tanks, but by polls. Not by asking what’s best for the country but what will get people excited. Who’s leading who?

And so this rabbis suggested, if you want to drive your organization/ shul/ institution to success, you cannot be glued to your rearview mirror, you need to be looking out the front window with a clear goal and vision so you could lead and not follow.

Unfortunately, with time I came to realize that this particular individual did not own a rearview mirror.

Meaning, he was so intent and confident in his vision that he never checked in with those he was trying to lead. And it served him well, he took his organizations far, very far. But in the process, he left a whole lot of people in the dust, behind him, hurt, broken, and disillusioned.

***

When Moshe asks G-d to choose a successor, he asks G-d to find someone, “asher yo’tzi’eim v’asher ye’vi’eim” which the Malbim explains to mean, [a leader] “who will force them to go out and force them to come back.” And at the same time, in his request, Moshe refers to G-d as, “Elokei haruchos l’chol basar, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh.” Rashi so eloquently elaborates on what Moshe was really asking for, and he puts the following words in Moshe’s mouth: Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, galuy l’fanecha da’ato shel kol echad v’echad, you, G-d know the character and thought process of each person, v’einon domim zeh lazeh, and no two people are alike. Maneh aleihem manhig she’yehei sovel kol echad v’echad l’fi da’ato, appoint for them a leader who can deal with and understand each person according to their nature.

Moshe was asking G-d to appoint a leader for the Jewish People who had a strong vision, a big expansive front window or windshield to look out from, but also a rearview mirror – maybe even one of those new rearview cameras, to ensure that the leader is always – always – aware of the people that he’s attempting to lead.

(No surprise that these words case out of Moshe’s mouth. Moshe could have clung on until the very end as some leaders do. The mere request for a successor reflected a leader who wasn’t in it for himself. As great as Moshe was – lo kom k’Moshe od – Moshe knew there is life after Moshe. The institution, or in this case the Jewish People will live on. Much talk about charismatic leaders as some terrible stories are coming out of Israel of abusive leaders. Charisma is inescapable. Some people have it and some do not. The litmus test is, is it about the people, the vision, or is it about the leader? Is the leader building an institution around themselves or are they building an institution that can live on without them?)

I recently attended a conference that attempted to address the biggest roadblocks to millennial engagement with Jewish shuls and institutions. One theme that came up over and over again was distrust in institutions and their leaders. A sense that aside from all the many scandals, with a capital S (- such as some of those charismatic leaders who abused their charm) there are also many mini-scandals; questions people have about the management of money, of how decisions are made, of hiring and firing. And in our open-source, glass-door, transparent society that we live in, this type of opaque leadership is not very reassuring, and worse, it’s a big and ugly turn-off.

In G-d’s response to Moshe’s request for a successor, G-d gives detailed instructions to Moshe on what the installation ceremony should look like. And in what is obviously a highly symbolic move, G-d demands that the giving over of power take place in the presence of Eliezer the High Priest.

The reason is clear. Eliezer’s father recently died as a punishment – a punishment for a sin he did not commit! Moshe was instructed to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Moshe disobeys G-d’s command and hits the rock. And yet, it is not only Moshe who is punished, but Aharon is punished as well. What did Aharon do? He did nothing?!

And that’s exactly what he did wrong. He was silent. He did not speak up. His role as High Priest was to provide checks and balances to the political and spiritual leadership, and Aharon failed to do so. (see Yalkut Shimoni, #764)

And so this time around, when Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor begins his career, it is in the shadow and under the watch of the High Priest – to make it abundantly clear, that even leaders, even the greatest of leaders need accountability, need to have someone that they answer to.

Where is our Eliezer Hakohen?

Are the board members of our schools/ shuls/ institutions really aware of the goings-on of the institution in which they are appointed as trustee?

Of course, there is much sensitive information discussed at board meetings, but wouldn’t it be nice if there is a short summary of those meetings shared with the members of the organization from time to time?

Wouldn’t it be great if institutions have clear hiring and firing guidelines that are known to its membership and those it serves?

Shouldn’t the staff of any given institution receive an evaluation from time to time?

Wouldn’t we all feel more comfortable if all Jewish institutions share annual financial reports to all its members? I know of only one school in this city which does this!

Occasional audits performed by outside parties – would that not make each and every one of us a whole lot more comfortable sending our children, money, selves to these institutions, schools, and shuls?

(recommendations taken from the Church Transparency Project)

Now before the board of our shul kills me for throwing this all out there, let me be very clear and say, that this is not about any particular institution, certainly not ours. As an institution, I think we’re actually pretty good, we’re pretty sensitive to this. I’m actually meeting with our chair for my professional evaluation later this month, which I welcome. But of course, there is still much work to be done. Here and everywhere.

And the truth is there are a miniscule number of leaders that are nefarious, or organizations that are deliberately mismanaging money or have malicious policies or practices in place. Most of our organizations are led by selfless, well-meaning volunteers and over-worked staff who receive far more grief than they deserve for the amazing work they do. And that’s all the more reason to create policies of transparency. There is nothing to hide.

This past Sunday we began observing the Three Weeks of mourning. We mourn for the loss of the Temple and we spend this time asking ourselves, what went wrong; what caused G-d to expel us from His land, what sins did we commit that made us no longer worthy of a Holy Temple in our midst.

There are some famous reasons, such as sinat chinam, the baseless hatred and in-fighting that both the Talmud and ancient historians record. But there are less famous, but equally if not more important reasons given as well. And one of those is a complete and total breakdown of leadership. The famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, where one man publicly kicks another out of his party is not only a story of sinat chinam, but as the Talmud teaches us it is also about leaders who did not lead. It is a story of leaders who made poor choices and people who didn’t have the courage to stand up to them.  These Three Weeks are an appropriate time to reflect on how we could ensure that there are no roadblocks preventing our fellow Jews from participating in organized Jewish life and frankly, to ensure that there are no roadblocks preventing Mashiach – the answer to all these problems, from arriving.

Creating these types of checks and balances is a suggestion, it’s a suggestion that would take an incredible amount of time and energy that no one has. I do not know of a silver bullet to solve these problems. What I do know is that we need to start a conversation. I do know that rabbis, teachers, principals, CEO’s and board members need to talk more about accountability, transparency, openness. Let’s all take a moment at our Shabbos tables, in our free-time, thinking about how we, we who care about our institutions can rebuild the trust that these institutions need and deserve. In a few weeks we will read the vision of Isaiah, the beautiful description of what the world will look like in the End of Days. And there he writes, וְאָשִׁ֤יבָה שֹׁפְטַ֙יִךְ֙ כְּבָרִ֣אשֹׁנָ֔ה וְיֹעֲצַ֖יִךְ כְּבַתְּחִלָּ֑ה  “I (G-d) will return your judges like in days of old, and your advisors of yore. אַחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן יִקָּ֤רֵא לָךְ֙ עִ֣יר הַצֶּ֔דֶק קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָֽה׃ Afterward you will be called the city of righteousness, the city of trust.” May we merit to see those prophecies fulfilled speedily in our days.

 

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