Ten years ago last week, I stood on the bimah of the Plum Street Temple with my classmates on a perfect Saturday morning. In that breathtaking room, filled literally to the gills, each of us stepped before the ark, and received the blessing—and the charge—of the rabbinate. I was fortunate enough to have both my teacher David Ellenson and my father ordain me. It was among the three most powerful moments of my life, and before my son was born, the most humbling.
Let me give you a little context. I had known my entire life that I wanted to be a rabbi. I tell people that I made up my mind when I was 15 and attending the Reform Movement’s Kutz Leadership Academy, but that’s only partially true. I began thinking about it when I was 11, and by the time I was 13 I truly couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was, to use a Christian term, called. The Still Small Voice within me told me that for this I was created. Which meant that, until that moment On May 30th 2003, every fiber of my being was pointed to that day, in that direction. And as I stood on that bimah and waited my turn, I knew it would be transformative. I expected the ruach elohim, God’s presence, to permeate me, empower me. Instead, as I felt my father’s hands on my head, as I heard the words of that blessing, I felt smaller than I ever had. And that feeling has never left me. Not for one moment of my 10 years in the rabbinate.
Why do people go into leadership? Why do they step forward instead of backward? Why would someone choose to speak out or speak up? Is it about ego, about loving the sound of their own voices? Is it because they have some kind of agenda? In our most cynical moments, each of us has had those thoughts, haven’t we? And in this week’s portion, we hear something of that alienation, that suspicion. Vayikach Korach: Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty representatives of the Israelites; chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, with fine reputations. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”
Listen to Korach’s accusation—who do you think you are Moses? What self-interest are you pursuing? What agenda do you have? Who do you think you are? What’s your angle? Korach and his cohort assume ill intent on Moses and Aaron’s part. They assume Moses and Aaron are imposing some alien vision, some hostile intent upon the congregation. We’re already holy, and God is in our midst. We don’t need what you’re selling.
Why do people go into leadership, when there is so much doubt, when there are so many questions, when there’s so much skepticism? Why do these people step forward? Each would answer in a different way, but I would guess that there would be a common thread, one that stands counter to Korach’s assertion, his boast of present holiness. For as Yeshayahu Leibowitz reminds us, Leviticus 19 proclaims that Israel will be holy, future tense. Israel is not yet holy, but open to the possibility. We are challenged to be holy, we aspire to be holy, but to claim that we are already holy, to accept the status quo, to hang a sign proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished’, is to sell ourselves and our community short.
Real leaders lead not out of self-interest, but because they believe in the community. They accept the challenge, they respond to the call, because they aspire for all to go up, for the whole community to move forward, toward holiness. This doesn’t make them perfect; quite the opposite! They’re still human beings, who make mistakes, who get upset or hurt or angry, who have trouble hearing clear signals instead of noise. But, in the words of Carey Nieuwhof, they don’t ask “Why is this happening?” “How come this doesn’t seem to happen to other people?” “What I have I done to deserve this?” “Is this ever going to end?” Instead they ask the hardest and most essential question of community and leadership: What does this experience make possible? Which doesn’t mean they don’t get scared, or get it wrong. But it does mean they move past self-interest and toward the sacred.
Deuteronomy Rabbah reminds us that a community is too heavy to carry alone. Too often we try to do so, and we think either only we—I—can do what needs to be done, or the exact inverse—it’s someone else’s problem. But as my teachers Terry Bookman and William Kahn remind us: God created the covenant with the Israelites not simply as a means by which to keep them by His side, but also as a model for how they can be with one another.” We installed a new board tonight. Their success depends on us—our love, our support, our truth, our assumptions, our graciousness, our responsiveness. They step forward to share the best of themselves, may we respond in turn. Amen.