Who Is Truly Wise

         Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Fathers, was a text I studied in day school from my teacher, Adon Morgan. At the beginning of each test, we had to write down “Who is truly wise?” followed by three answers: 1.) One who learns from all people[1] 2.) One who foresees the consequences of his actions[2] and 3.) One who lives out what he has learned. This, along with the statement “Learning never ends,” was the mantra for the course of study.

         Of these three points, the third of which was Adon Morgan’s personal addition, I have found the second to be most significant. In making decisions, can we foresee the path down which those decisions will lead? Can we be like a chess player, looking five moves ahead, rather than just at what is directly in front of us?

         A man who would have done well to heed this advice is Noah. After leaving the ark, Noah is described as “a man of the land, the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became intoxicated, and he uncovered himself in his tent.”[3] Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers, who proceeded to cover him. When Noah found out what happened he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, making him a slave to his brothers.[4] The Torah does not specify why Canaan rather than Ham is cursed or what exactly was Ham’s sin. The Talmud states that Ham castrated Noah, depriving him of a fourth son. Thus, Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son, Canaan.[5]

         How much blame should Noah be given for the occurrence of this incident? Perhaps he did not know any better and this was his first time getting drunk. He also was not harming anyone, being inside his tent, and he had just spent 40 days and 40 nights on a boat, not knowing when he would see dry land again. More interesting is that this incident occurred with one of our sacred weekly ritual items. Our tradition that “wine causes the heart of man to rejoice”[6] and that “there is no joy without wine.”[7]

         Despite these texts, Noah is at fault for not foreseeing the consequences of his actions. He was supposed to set an example for his children and grandchildren. True, he worked hard tilling the ground, yet that did not give him the right to overindulge in alcohol and pass out in his tent. Noah demonstrated that he was concerned with himself and his own happiness, not the needs of his family. He did not understand how his sons and grandsons would react to their patriarch acting in this manner.

         Did Noah commit a sin, a violation of the Torah? From the text I cannot say he did. However, he certainly did not act as a role model. It reminds me of the Talmudic interpretation quoted by Rashi that if Noah was in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered righteous, as he was only concerned about himself as opposed to anyone else.[8] Noah’s mistake was taking something sacred, the fruit of the vine, which we consecrate every week through the Kiddush, and abusing it, thereby profaning it.

         I recently learned that Sacramento has a chapter of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others). I was privileged to attend one of their Shabbat retreats in 2010 as an observer. I saw and learned about people who had hurt themselves and their loved ones through abuse of alcohol. A number of them had started to drink gradually, in high school or college, and increased their level of drinking over the years. At one point they hit rock bottom-perhaps a friend advised them to join a 12-step program, or they recognized they needed to make changes in their lives. They understood that they had not only an addiction but a disease, a condition which required medical treatment. They also knew that they had each other for support, to cheer when they said, “I’m sixty days clean!” or “I’m two years clean!”

         Unfortunately, Noah did not have the luxury of a hevre to support and encourage him. Even so, he had to establish a strong foundation for future generations. He could have begun by creating a beit midrash, a school for his children, or planting trees for fruit. Instead, he planted a vineyard, not for the purpose of Kiddush wine but for immediate, worldly pleasure through intoxication. Had he known how his family would react, he might have acted differently, and would not have ended up cursing his grandson, pushing him away and making him the progenitor of our enemy, the Canaanites. If only Noah had foreseen the consequences of his actions.

         We cannot read the minds of others, nor do we have crystal balls. However, before we act, we need to think about whether this action would make our friends and family proud of us. Even if the act is legal, that is not always enough-rather, we need to do the best we can to model good behavior for our friends and families. May we strive to be truly wise, understanding the impact our decisions make not just now but down the road.

[1] Mishnah Avot 5:1

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tamid 32a

[3] Genesis 9:20-21

[4] Genesis 9:25

[5] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a

[6] Psalm 104

[7] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 109a

[8] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 58a

Three Leadership Models

         How does a leader lead best? We have three examples of leadership in our patriarchs. Abraham embodies Hesed, or lovingkindness. He defends to people of Sodom and Gomorrah when God wants to destroy them, asking “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”[1] Abraham also embodies ‘radical hospitality,’ rushing to greet three men who visit his tent despite the pain he was feeling from his circumcision. Yet there is concurrently something lacking in Abraham. He rushes to Sarah and has her drop everything she is doing in order to feed the men. He hurries to Mount Moriah with his son Isaac as a sacrifice, prepared to kill him until an angel intercedes. Abraham is ‘anxious to please,’ pleasing other while neglecting the needs of his family.

         In contrast to Abraham, Isaac embodies gevurah, which I choose to translate as resilience. Despite the trauma of almost being sacrificed by his father, Isaac marries Rebecca and fathers two children, Jacob and Esau. He chooses to put aside the anguish, the hurt that a beloved father would kill him to please God, and begins a new generation. Yet some of Isaac’s trauma remains; he is permanently scarred. Isaac becomes a passive character, manipulated by Rebecca and Jacob. In Parshat VaYetze, Jacob says “the fear of Isaac.”[2] Pahad Yitzhak is a waay I understand our patriarch, though not in the traditional sense. He was too afraid to act and thus became the object of other people’s actions.

         Jacob’s approach is the one I think leaders should emulate. Yes, Jacob the kniver, who took Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. According to tradition, Jacob embodies tiferet, the glory of God, and also emet, truth. He is a visionary who begins with the end in mind, and then seizes the opportunity to obtain his goals of receiving the birthright and blessing. Even with God Jacob has a plan. When he is a refugee from his home, running in fear of his brother Esau, using a stone as a pillow, Jacob vows that he will believe in god only “if God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear.”[3] A leader needs to be able to speak his/her truth with conviction while also being receptive to the truths of others. Being in active dialogue about what we need and doing things not because they are popular but because they are right (in other words, having the courage of our convictions) is the hallmark of effective leadership.

         In her article “Why the Most Successful Leaders Don’t Care About Being Liked,” [4] my former life coach Deborah Grayson-Riegel wrote “When does being liked become a problem? When it comes at the expense of being respected.” She continues, “According to scientist Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, overall happiness in life is related to how much you are respected by those around you. Nevertheless, when we sacrifice what it takes to be respected for the quicker, and often easier, win of feeling liked, we lose out on the benefits that respect yields.” Grayson-Riegel concludes “For professionals who want to grow in their roles and careers, being liked is good, but being respected is a requirement. As Margaret Thatcher once remarked, ‘If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.’”

         We recognize this week in Parshat VaYera the dangers of Abraham doing God’s will in blind faith. We will see in Parshat Toledot the dangers of Isaac being so restrained he loses all sense of agency. While Jacob is far from perfect and certainly did not have an easy life-especially at the end-his sense of how to achieve what one needs is what we should emulate.

[1] Genesis 18:17

[2] Genesis 31:42

[3] Genesis 28:21

[4] Why the Most Successful Leaders Don’t Care About Being Liked | Inc.com

Liminal Seasons and Theological Masks

What a privilege to have been able to attend the Rabbinical Assembly convention in St. Louis this past week. Seeing colleagues from throughout the movement, including Israel, Buenos Aires and Germany, and from all different ages and types of rabbinates was extremely moving. It was the largest turnout of rabbis within their first five years of ordination ever at a convention. In addition, there were amazing insights from the convention that I want to begin sharing today.

I learned the most from a 3-day session on liminal seasons and the soul of the institution from Reverend Susan Beaumont and from a three-day small group on theological masks by Rabbi Ira Stone. Reverend Beaumont defines liminality as “a quality of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces, when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended and a new situation not yet begun.”[1]

 We discussed the challenges of liminality-that we are not in a season disrupted by covid on a way back to a new normal-or worse yet to “what was”-but rather are in a time when we don’t know what the future holds. We know that covid caused or accelerated a paradigm shift yet we do not yet see where that will ultimately hear and feel the ambiguity of the moment. One of the advantages of such a period is we get to look at the soul of our congregation-who we are, where we are going and different ways in which we can get there. The creativity that can be present as such a moment is exciting and full of potential. At the same time those who highly value stability and the status quo might be afraid. They might say “is this the world that I’ve always known? Is this still the same synagogue?” Those fears are real and yet with taking a step back and examining what we are really afraid of we can better understand it.

The other aspect we spoke about with Rev. Beaumont is the difference between decision making and discernment. Rather than do what we often do-take big problems and narrow them down to the point where we take a vote, discernment enables us to open something up in all its complexity, hear everyone’s perspective and arrive at consensus. Consensus is not unanimity but rather making sure that every voice in the room has been heard and after that there is a process for people choosing to stand aside. Dealing with the larger questions of who we are and what we stand for is essential.

Applying this to Torah, we see a lot of liminality in Genesis 22 with the Akedah. When God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his first born, Isaac senses the ambiguity of the moment. He tells Abraham, הנה העץ והעצים ואיה השה לעולה “here is the wood but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies אלהים יראה את השה לעולה בני  “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering my son.” This is often taken as Abraham evading the truth yet one can see it instead as Abraham saying “we don’t know what will be. Let’s see what God wants in the end.” That is the difference between decision making and discernment. In decision making everything lies with the group making the decision; with discernment we consider what does God want from us in this moment.

We also seeing when Abraham is standing at Petach HaOhel (at the threshold of his tent)[2] he is also at a liminal point. He is standing in the threshold and needs to decide does he want to move forward into the unknown or step back into the familiar. He chooses to go forth. Interestingly the Conservative Movement’s conversion manual is called Petach HaOhel. Jews by choice always need to decide if they want to go forward into an unknown-assume a new religion and perhaps a new identity or if they want to stay within the unknown. We celebrate them when they choose to join our people when they are standing within the threshold.

This leads me to what I learned from Rabbi Ira Stone, the director of the Center of Contemporary Mussar. Rabbi Stone led a discussion on the masks we wear and the ideal to have a mask as a semi-permeable membrane-not being so rigid that we close ourselves off nor so open that we lose our sense of self. The goal is to determine which masks are good and which are defensive. If it’s a defensive mask the trigger for it is fear so we need to ask what do I fear and is it real? The parallel in the Torah portion is Sarah’s fear of Ishmael. She was too rigid to have a place for Hagar and Ishmael in her home. Was her fear justified? One who reads Rashi would say yes; one who reads Ramban would say no. It’s a good practice when we get triggered by what or who we see or what or who we hear to take a step back and ask ourselves why this might be the case. Which expression do we wish to show on our face?

As a congregation I hope we can learn from both Reverend Beaumont and Rabbi Stone. When we are afraid of the liminal season in which we find ourselves, the uncertainty this creates, the ambiguity we are left with, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what is really going on for us. At times this involves stepping into a threshold and at other times we might wish to hold back. Similarly, when we put on a mask, we need to determine whether this mask helps or hurts us, whether there is fear behind us and if that fear is real or perceived. Had I not attended the Rabbinical Assembly convention, I would not have had these pearls of wisdom for which I am most grateful as I have the privilege to help lead Mosaic Law Congregation into its next chapter.

[1] Reverend Susan Beaumont, “Leading in a Liminal Season,” session for Rabbinical Assembly members 11/7/22.

[2] Genesis 18:1