One of the great challenges of Torah study is the interpretation of the Hebrew text. How exactly should we understand the original Hebrew in our own language and culture? As Rabbi Shai Held points out, a case in point can be found in this week’s parasha, Korach. After a fire breaks out, the Israelites become afraid of coming near the Mishkan. So God decides that the Kohanim will be the ones to approach the holiest spaces, and says: Avodat Matana Eten et Kehunatchem. Some understand that to mean, “I will make your priesthood a service of dedication” while others say it means “I give your priesthood as a gift.” The way the Hebrew text is interpreted is crucial, as these two translations lead to two very different views of leadership.
One translation implies that leadership is a burden and a responsibility that affords the chance to give of oneself for the sake of the community, while the other translation suggests that leadership is a gift and a privilege that enhances the leader’s stature and image in the eyes of others.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that there are two ways of being- the way of expediency and the way of wonder- that are in constant tension in our lives. These two ways of being illuminate two different approaches to leadership. In the way of expediency, we are focused on how we can get what we want and need in order to dominate others. In this view, leadership is about accumulating power and accumulating prestige and perks that being a leader affords primarily to enhance ourselves. In the way of wonder, we are focused on how we can serve others. In this view, leadership is about making sacrifices and investing effort in order to enhance and uplift others.
As we begin our Ramah summer with the commitment to nurture, train and empower the next generation of Jewish leaders, we ask each young person to consider what type of leadership style should be embraced. It is an honor to be a leader, it is a source of pride and good feeling. The opportunity to lead is a gift. But leaders should always keep in mind that our purpose is not to exalt ourselves but to serve the community.
Our 72-year-old movement has depended on Heschel’s “way of wonder” as a model of leadership that draws on young people’s ideas, passion, creativity and commitment to building a magnificent (perhaps Utopian) Jewish community which is vibrant and relevant.
This shabbat we will charge the Ramah Galim staff with this sacred mission. We ask that they prepare to lead with kavod (respect), hodayah (gratitude), and anavah (humility). We ask that they use their gifts to serve as an example for their chanichim and fellow staff members. And while the summer is still dawning, we pray that the gift of Jewish leadership learned and developed here, will endure well beyond the months ahead.
Amy Skopp Cooper
National Associate Director
National Ramah Commission, Inc.