The Sounds of Leadership

Be a MenschThis past month our Elementary School embarked on the “Be a Mensch” Project which aimed at recognizing carefully selected Middot Tovot (good character traits) in others.  What a wonderful sight it was to see students, faculty and staff literally wearing their good behaviour as badges of honour.  In Hebrew the word for clothing, madim, and for character traits, middot, are etymologically related.  The message: we wear our actions, good or bad, on our sleeves.

This week’s parsha is devoted almost exclusively to the bigdei kehunah (priestly garments) of the regular kohanim, who wore four garments and the Kohen Gadol, who wore eight.  Many commentators offer significant messages that are conveyed by the structure and form of the various items of clothing.  The ultimate purpose of these beautiful uniforms was “l’kavod u’l’tiferet” – for the honour and glory of the Ribbono Shel Olam (Shemot 28:2).

Bigdei_Kehuna(7)Among the special garments described in our parasha that were worn by the Kohen Gadol is the Me’il, the Robe – (Shemot 28:31-35). The Me’il was long enough to come down to the feet of the Kohen Gadol and along the bottom hem, it was decorated with a series of 72 pomegranates made of blue, purple and scarlet wool, and golden bells each with a ringer.  According to Rashi, the pomegranates and golden bells alternated all around the bottom of the Me’ilThese pomegranates and bells were both decorative and functional:

וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה’ וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת

“It must be on Aaron in order to minister, its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem, and when he leaves, so that he not die.” (Shemot 28:35)

There are a many interpretations on the significance and purpose of the bells, as well as many lessons to be learned.  Some suggest their sounding being intended for the people’s ears (Rashbam, Chizkuni), some suggest they were intended for Hashem Himself and/or the angels (Ramban) and others describe the bells along with all the priestly vestments as serving as a Kapara (atonement) for different sins of the Jewish people including unintentional murderers (Yerushalmi), or for lashon hara (Kli Yakar).

But, what if the bells’ message was also intended for the Kohen Gadol himself?  What was the lesson learned for the spiritual leader of the Jewish people as he heard the sounding of the bells while entering and exiting the Sanctuary?

Perhaps a message was that in order to successfully lead, to be heard and to be followed, he had to understand that his role was to be servant first.  Only when he would act in the best interest of his people – “l’sharet” – then they would follow him – “V’nishma Kolo”.

In an essay called The Servant as Leader, first published in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership”, which elaborates on this idea.  He writes:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Greenleaf continues: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

According to Greenleaf, a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Perhaps we can say that Moshe Rabbeinu models servant-leadership for his brother Aaron and all future leaders, by “recusing” himself from this week’s parasha altogether, which proves to be the only parasha since his birth that his name is not mentioned.  He steps aside temporarily into anonymity to bring out the autonomy and full service of Aaron.

The Me’il was an important reminder for the spiritual leader of the budding Jewish civilization in the desert, and an important lesson for community leaders, school leaders, classroom leaders, and parent leaders everywhere that to lead is to recognize the best in others and cultivating their talents first. Then, they will follow.


The Shul Candy Man

lollipops-466687_1280In tribute to Eddie Schachter, z”l, and shul Candy Men everywhere.

Every synagogue includes a supporting cast of unofficial, self-appointed characters that make shul a more colourful experience. They include, among others: “the knocker” who carefully reminds us of special prayers to insert on special days, the “shusher” (self-explanatory), the late morning nap taker who keeps the Rabbi’s ego in check, the Kiddush club enabler who clears the room during Haftorah, and the Hatzolah guy whose radio is just loud enough for everyone to hear.

But of all of them, the most beloved and arguably the most impactful person is the Candy Man.  He is the man in Shul who brings a smile to countless children’s faces with a simple piece of candy (or three) on Shabbat, and has them coming back week after week. For a kid in synagogue, he is the only person that matters.

The Candy Man is not elected, he is not represented on the institution’s letterhead.  He is often scorned by parents for the sugar high they will have to deal with, and conspiracy theorists have accused him of colluding with local dentists (never proven!).  But, if the survival of Judaism is dependent on the next generation, there is no doubt that he could be the most important person in the synagogue.

Many have tried and failed at the position perhaps due to poor merchandise choice or distribution policies that are too strict.  What many don’t understand is that being the Candy Man is about more than the candy.  It’s about ensuring that the next generation of Jews have a positive association with synagogue.

It takes special skill, sensitivity and patience to be the shul Candy Man, as the clientele is diverse, complex and sometimes tricky.

There is the tentative customer who approaches eyes shyly to the ground and then dashes instantly once the candy hits the palm of his hand.  There is the kind and gracious child who smiles and says: “thank you”, melting the Candy Man’s heart.  There is the child who is accompanied, almost forcefully, by his father who won’t let him leave until she says: “thank you”.  And there is the child who comes back moments later with a request for another candy for “his little sister”.

Each Candy Man has a style of his own.  Some give lollipops, others an assortment of packaged delights.  Some give hard candies, others chewy or jellied ones.  Some offer choice and others don’t.  Some give only one per Shabbat, some handfuls and others encourage coming back for more.  Some may require a “thank you”, or “Good Shabbos” in return, others are satisfied with a simple smile.

My father-in-law affectionately known to two generations of kids in Toronto as “Sabba Bazooka”, has a strict one Israeli Bazooka gum and a “Good Shabbos” in return before escaping policy.

Candy Men can be very territorial.  While they are not assigned a specific zone in the sanctuary to operate in, once they establish themselves, they often resent competition for customers.

At the end of the day, with nothing really expected in return, the Candy Man’s mission is that every Jewish child have the opportunity to have at least one sweet and warm moment in synagogue and hopefully have him come back for more of those moments.

Perhaps one of the earliest hints to Candy Men in Jewish life, is an interesting 12th century German custom described in Sefer Harokeah, written by R. Eleazar of Worms, of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavuot, the day the Torah was given.

They would come wrapped in a cloak, and were put on the lap of the Rabbi who would bring a slate with written verses from the Torah and the Aleph-Beit.  He taught the child the verses and the letters and the child repeated them.  And then Rabbi put a little honey on the slate and the child licked the honey from the letters with his tongue.

The message was clear, namely that from an early age learning had to be enjoyable.  Torah, as well as all of Jewish life, can only be transmitted effectively if it is delivered in a sweet and gentle fashion.

The “World Series” in the life of the Candy Man has always been Simchat Torah, the day on which we celebrate the completion and restarting of the Torah cycle.  Showering children with sweets to no end, seeing kids dancing and singing with the Torahs, is the highlight of the year for every Candy Man as he sees his mission fulfilled to its fullest.

As we celebrate and begin the Torah anew, recommitting ourselves to its transmission to future generations, let us be reminded by the Candy Men everywhere to teach it with love, as its ways are ways of pleasantness and sweetness.

Eddie Schachter, z”l, was a Holocaust survivor and Montreal legend.  Eddie’s passion was caring for children as TBDJ’s legendary “Candy Man”, supporter of Jewish education and needy families.  Yehi Zichro Baruch.

A Divine Embrace

It was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, British athlete Derek Redmond took his mark as a favourite to medal in the 400 meter sprint.   The starter’s gun fires, and they’re off.  150 meters into the race Derek felt a searing pain in his leg.  In agony, he fell to the ground, he had torn his hamstring.

His dream of medaling turned into a nightmare. After laying on the ground for a brief moment, Derek, not willing to give up was determined to finish the race.  He got himself up and staggered forward.  Meter after meter hobbled in unbearable pain.

All of a sudden a man from the stands broke through security and rushed towards Derek, waving off officials as he approached.  He put his arm around him helping him keep his balance.  After a couple of meters, Derek looks up, it was his father.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told his son.

“Yes, I do,” he replied.

“Well then, we’re going to finish this together!”

Together father and son continued.

Just before Derek arrived at the finish line, his father let him go to complete the race receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of over 65,000.

From Tisha B’Av, through the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana, Aseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur, we have been immersed in self-reflection and contemplation.  Where have I been, where am I, and where do I want to be?  How have I acted, how am I acting, and how do I want to act in the future?  Who was I, who am I and who do I want to be?

Personal growth is a rewarding, yet painful process at times.  We’ve work so hard and may feel, right now, that we’ve falling to the ground with our own torn hamstring.

The race is not over yet.  We swiftly get up from pain and exhaustion, we set our sights on the finish line, the culmination of the holiday season, Sukkot.

We may struggle, hammer and nail in hand, limping to get all the Yom Tov preparations in order.  But then we sit together, friends and family in a Divine embrace.  Hashem telling us: “You’ve worked so hard, you’ve accomplished so much already.  I know you are in pain, I know it hurts.  Let me help you.  I want to give you a hug.”

According to our tradition, to be kosher the sukkah must have at least two walls and a tefach (a handbreadth) and a maximum of 4 walls. Rabbi J. H. Shmidman, zt”l, used to say that a hug is hidden in the very name of our temporary dwellings – ס כ ה.  The “two walls” and a “tefach” version, represented by the letter “Heh”, could appear like an arm wrapped over another’s shoulders.  The three walled version represented by the letter “Kaf”, could appear like a two armed embrace.  And the four walled option, represented by the letter “Samech”, could appear like a great big hug.

After going through the Days of Awe, isn’t that all we need?

As we enter our sukkah, it is traditional to offer the following beautiful tefila:

“…יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותיי שתשרה שכינתך בינינו ותפרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך”

“May it be your will, my God and God of my forefathers, that You cause Your Presence to reside amongst us and that You spread over us the sukkah of Your peace…”

We sit and look around at our beautifully decorated sukkot, we look around at our friends and our families.  And we pay attention to the brachot that surround our lives,  basking in Divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

Two Shofars on Rosh Hashana:  Which is yours?

058Two people walk by a synagogue just as the shofar is being sounded on Rosh Hashana.  Shul windows open, the thunderous notes of the shofar fill the street.  

Upon hearing the sound, the first person thinks to himself: “Wow.  What am I doing outside here?  There is something special going on inside.  I wish to be included in this special moment.”  

The second person, head down, scanning through his emails, pays little attention thinking to himself: “Hmmm, maybe I’ll come back later, I have too much going on.”  The sound of the shofar quickly becomes drowned out with the noise in his mind and from the street.

Both people heard the same sound, but did neither, either, or both of them fulfill the mitzvah of shofar?  More significantly, what is the role of intention in our Jewish lives and in our religious commitments?

Yes, indeed, both did heard the sound of the shofar, but only one of them listened to it.  Intention is what distinguished the two friends’ experiences, and therefore only one fulfilled the mitzvah.

According to Maimonides (Hilchot Shofar 3:4):

“Although blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is a mandate of the Torah, there is a hint in it. As if to say, ‘wake up sleepy ones from your slumber and the dozing ones arise from your sleep and examine your deeds and return with teshuva and recall your Creator, those people who forget the truth with the silliness of the times and waste all their years on foolishness and emptiness that will not help and not save. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes and abandon each one of you his mistaken path and his intention that is not good.’”

The shofar’s purpose, while it must be musically in tune, is not meant only to be good entertainment.  The shofar’s purpose is to awaken us and to call us to action.  This can only be achieved with a level of intentionality of the listener, even if it’s just a little amount.

We each engage in our Jewish lives in different ways and at different levels of intensity.  Often determined by our upbringing, the circumstances of life, and even the day’s mood.  Some of us connect more intellectually, some more emotionally, some more socially, some more nationally and some more spiritually.

But, what is our intention, what is our purposefulness in those interactions?  Are we hearing or are we listening?  Are we just passing by or are we engaged?

Over this High Holiday season as we congregate together, we must ask ourselves these questions.  Why am I here as part of the collective? Why am I here as an individual? What is my intention? And subsequently, how do these answers influence my level of enthusiasm and my level of engagement?

Are the prayer services, the shofar blasts, the camaraderie, the sermons stirring up something meaningful in me, moving me to positive action?  Or am I pretty much the same coming out as I was coming in?

Of course, there is onus on the sweet sounding Chazzan, the powerful shofar blower, the devoted lay leadership and the passionate Rabbis to inspire, but to be truly inspired, to be transformed by Rosh Hashana and all of Jewish life it takes intentional listening to the prayers, intentional listening to the Torah reading, intentional listening to the shofar, intentional listening to the sermons, and most importantly intentional listening to ourselves.

Being genuinely moved is dependent on each and every one of us.  To listen we must quiet down the noise and be fully receptive to the powerful messages that are around us.

Blessings for a Shana Tova filled with health, happiness and meaning and most importantly, a good listening ear.

New Beginnings: Confessions of a First Time Grade 1 Parent

It’s butterfly season again.  Yes, it’s that time of year when butterflies seem to congregate especially in little tummies, and maybe most in those of grade 1 students on the eve of their first day at school.  And for this first time grade 1 parent, the butterflies seem to have found a home in me.

The Torah tells us:

.וְעַתָּה, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ

(And now, if you will hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all the peoples, for Mine is the entire world! – Shemot 19:5)

And now”, Rashi comments, “If you will accept upon yourselves it will be sweet from here on. From here we learn that all beginnings are difficult.”  Meaning, if it’s sweet from “here on”, it means it was difficult to begin with.

How do we get out of that difficult beginning and get to the sweet?

The first step is to expect and to accept that beginnings are in fact difficult.  Grade 1 is an especially exciting time for students, it’s also an anxiety provoking time.  On the one hand, kids are filled with a sense of pride, donning fresh, new school uniforms and joining the ranks of older kids.  With this special feeling, though comes the sense of responsibility bearing down on their shoulders, not to mention more “serious” time and less “play” time on the horizon.  It’s a time of transition and of adjustment and the sense of the unknown brings out fears and anxieties.  Everything seems new: new teachers, new classroom, new desks, new routines, new friends.  Kids’ comfort zones are seriously challenged.  

These anxieties are natural and expected.  And while teachers assure us that they will be “just fine”, and they will, there are strategies that we can use to reduce and manage those anxieties.  I like to talk to my children about my first days at school, show them pictures of the first time I wore a school uniform.  Playdates, can reduce the fear of social unknowns.  Speaking out fears and anxieties, playing them out, or even having them draw them out can be helpful.

Many times, anxieties can manifest in physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches, or in acting out at home with siblings or parents.  Reassuring children that their feelings are normal is a critical first step.

If things don’t settle, speak to your child’s teachers, they’ll have a greater handle on the situation.  Teachers anticipate our children’s butterflies—and ours—and will consciously work to put everyone at ease.

[For more strategies on dealing with child anxieties I recommend ‘Freeing your child from anxiety’ by Tamar E. Chansky, or your school guidance counsellor]

So why am I anxious?  Why do I, sit here the week my daughter enters grade 1, with butterflies in MY stomach?

As parents, one of our primary goals is to ensure that our children are in healthy academic and social environments and that they are safe.  The transition to grade 1 may feel like a letting go, or an abdication of those responsibilities to others.  And those “others” are, sometimes unfamiliar to us.  What also makes us anxious is how uncomfortable we are with our children’s anxieties.

These feelings are also natural and expected, and this reality needs to be accepted.  That is the first step.  The second, is to take a deep breath and trust.  Trust that we are handing off our precious children to professionals, namely,  trained, experienced and caring teachers who are waiting on the other side of that door.

But, I believe there is something deeper going on here, that will help us get to the next stage of sweetness.

Symbols play an important role in our lives.  Especially this time of year, symbols like the shofar, apples and honey, pomegranates are but a few examples of symbols that help to focus us on Rosh Hashana.  Symbols capture meaning and evoke emotion.  But, there is a danger to symbols that can trap us into missing the entire point.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches: “Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig.” (Avot 4:5)

Our sages are teaching us that turning the Torah into a symbol, namely a crown, is fine.  Turning the Torah into a symbol in order to use it for personal, social or financial gain is an abuse of God’s greatest gift.

There is purpose to God’s greatest gift.  We were granted the Torah as a guide towards selflessness.  

Grade 1 can also be turned into a symbol.  A significant symbol.  If grade 1 turns into a symbol of ME letting go or of MY abdication of responsibilities, then the symbol takes a selfish turn and perhaps this is when anxieties persist.  However, if grade 1 is turned into a symbol of entrance through the gateway of Jewish education, and for us, parents, our obligation and duty to herd our children through those gates, we become filled with emotions of pride, joy and fulfillment.

Beginnings are difficult, that is a fact of life. When approaching our responsibilities selflessly, they may still be difficult at first, but with the right attitude, it will be sweet from here on.

L’chaim to new beginnings and blessings for a sweet new year!

The False Prophet in Us

Swept away by election season drama, the airwaves, print, online and social media are abuzz feeding us the most recent scandal, misspeak, or blunder.  Rather than fueling a conversation on key issues and the candidates’ views on them, we are being bombarded with the character, behaviour and association flaws of candidates.

This is an old story, as old as politics and leadership itself.  While character analysis remains critical, attention to the message has taken a WAY back seat to attention on the messenger.

Why is this?  What does it say about our society?  And is there something to do about it?

We seem to be a generation of skeptics, a generation reluctant to trust, a generation that lacks loyalty.  Some will say this is unique to our generation caused by new realities.  In the age before free agency in sports, players spent their entire career with one team.  In the age before globalization, people moved around less.  In a time before social media, people took membership to community institutions and their commitments and friendships more seriously.

Or perhaps we can say that generations of hustlers, manipulators and swindlers have finally taken their toll on society and we are tired of being fooled.  The consequence? If integrity and honesty slapped us in the face, we would not be able to recognize it.

In this last week’s parasha we are given a stern warning of the so-called false prophet, a person who comes with the razzle and dazzle of miracles, wondrous feats and a silver tongue to lead the Jewish people to other gods. (Devarim 13:2-3)

The Torah recognizes the inevitability of spiritual sharks in our midst, accepts the reality that there are plenty of phonies out there, and really good ones at that. It also gives us counsel on how to recognize and be proactive in seeking authenticity.

First, the Torah tell us, we must use our built-in phony meters and simply not listen to them – לא תשמע אל דברי הנביא ההוא

What ARE we supposed to do?

– אַחֲרֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.

“Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to his voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5)

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the “Netziv”, understands the false prophet as an external spiritual attack on a community in crisis, to which the Torah offers counsel (Haamek Davar, Devarim 13:2-5).  I believe his formula for combating the attacker can also be applied and adapted to the internal false prophet as well.

In this verse, the Torah counsels us with five critical steps towards authenticity:

  1. “Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear” – Follow Hashem with full faith and confidence;
  2. “His commandments shall you observe” – Look carefully at our actions, and shore up our commitments to  Torah and Mitzvot;
  3. “and to his voice shall you hearken” – Make sure that there are trustworthy messengers of the voice God in our midst, namely teachers of Torah and spiritual guides;
  4. “Him shall you serve” – Those teachers and guides model the service of God;
  5. “and to Him you shall cleave” – Connect to them in order to connect to Hashem;

Today, Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin a 50 day process asking Hashem every day for one and only one thing – אחת שאלתי,

– שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה’ כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה’ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

Return me to the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze at His sweetness and worship in His house. (Tehilim 27)

How do we get there?

We follow Hashem with faith and confidence, putting our best foot forward.  We take an honest accounting of our behaviour and actions, surrounding ourselves with and connecting to experienced guides, teachers and mentors who role model the behaviours we seek.  Ultimately, arriving at God’s home, the place of our most authentic self, a place of honesty and of integrity.  In Torah language – ישר.

Our parasha stresses a new reality in the service of Hashem upon entrance into the Land of Israel and the building of the Holy Temple, the physical location of authenticity in this world –

(לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו (דברים יב:ח

When it comes to honesty and integrity in the Beit Hamikdash we are not to do as we please, as we see fit in OUR eyes.  Authenticity is not about the subjective self, rather it’s about striving for our objective self, as the Torah says:

– ‘כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה

That which is right in the eyes of HASHEM (Devarim 12:25)

There is a true self and there is a phony self and what we see with our own eyes may be false.  We must be cognizant that our eyes are susceptible to blinding in the search of truth.  We can be distracted by many magnetic things and by many compelling people.

So we must mute the false prophet within, and set a standards of – ישר.  We are charged to yearn for, inquire, strive, and seek out honesty and integrity.

And this is what the month of Elul is all about, this is what teshuva is all about, namely, the diligent search for honesty and truth in ourselves as we prepare to stand before HaMelech – the King of Kings on Rosh HaShana.

“To dare and to choose”, as Brene Brown – renowned American scholar and bestselling author says, “to show up and to be real, to dare and to choose to be honest and to let our true selves be seen.”

The tragedy of the teshuva process is that while introspection and taking that necessary personal accounting, we often blind ourselves by our faults and delude ourselves into thinking that our faults and missteps are who we really are.  Ultimately, we are filled with so much guilt that we give up on the teshuva process, thereby giving up on our true selves.

As Brown says: “Authenticity is a choice and a practice — having the courage to be vulnerable, and engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than a place of shame or ‘never enough’.”

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, whose 80th yahrzeit is commemorated this week, devoted himself to revealing the true light hidden in the Torah and Torah life.  HaRav Kook, zt”l, writes:

“When we forget the character of our core soul, when we are distracted from looking at the content of the inner life within ourselves, everything becomes confused and doubtful.  But teshuva, which is primary, which illumines darkness immediately, will cause a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.   Immediately, he will return to God, to the Soul of all souls.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

Teshuva, is the process towards honesty and integrity with ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and our world from a place of worthiness, a return to who we truly are, and ultimately to God.

Yes, we are tired of phonies, so let’s be real.

Chodesh Tov and Shana Tova.