Leadership for a Disillusioned Nation

Barring an unforeseen and seismic shift, sometime this month we will know who the presumptive nominees for President are. As the director of a non-partisan, issue oriented non-profit, it’s not my place to endorse a candidate or to advocate a partisan approach to this election.

So allow me instead to share some thoughts on this week’s Torah portion.

Our story picks up following the events of the Golden Calf, which - the rabbinic tradition teaches us - introduced divisiveness and disillusionment, shattering the people’s sense of unity in the wilderness. Moses assembled (VaYakhel) the whole people to set them on a path of national restoration.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes this effort of restoration as becoming an edah, a form of community that values the diversity of its members, yet also has a shared sense of purpose: in this case the building of the Tabernacle.

“The greatness of the Tabernacle,” writes Sacks, “was that it was a collective achievement – one in which not everyone did the same thing. Each gave a different thing. Each contribution was valued – and therefore each participant felt valued.”

And who is chosen to lead this great project of national restoration?

“God has called by name Bezalel …and has filled him with the Spirit of the Divine; in Wisdom, in Understanding, and in Insight… and in all manner of workmanship.” Exodus 35: 30-31

When constructing a gathering place for an entire nation, a beautiful world class tabernacle, we would expect the selection of the greatest architects and artisans of the day – the ancient world’s Pierre L’Enfant (the builder of Washington).  Yet rather than select an I.M. Pei, a thirteen year old boy is chosen for the task.

Thankfully our Torah portion takes care to enumerate this youth’s qualifications for the enormous task at hand. And while we might expect that chief amongst them would be his skills as a craftsman or his management abilities to lead his colleagues, we instead learn that he is filled with Ruach Elokim, the Divine Spirit.  And what is this spirit? Wisdom. Understanding. Insight (Chochmah, T’vunah and Da’at).

Commentaries provide numerous translations and nuances in understanding these three terms, but put most succinctly by Rashi, the noted medieval French commentator:

  • Wisdom is the ability to learn from others.
  • Understanding is the ability to apply what we learn.
  • Insight is the spiritual kinship that comes from combining the other two forces to guide us.

In building the Tabernacle Bezalal was – as the great teacher Nechamah Leibowitz notes – charged with continuing and perfecting the act of creation. She notes the recurrence of this triad of qualities in two other places in the Torah connected to the creative building arc:  “God by chochmah founded the earth, by t’vunah established the heavens, by da’at split the waters.” (Proverbs 3:19-20). And when Solomon built the Temple, Hiram the architect is described as having these qualities as well (See Kings 7:14).
 
And it is only after Bezalel attains these attributes, vital to becoming a builder of a more perfect creation, that he is then recognized for his skills in “all manner of workmanship.”

Sacks writes that “leaders are society builders.” He teaches us that to preserve a diverse community with unity of purpose is the greatest challenge of a good leader. And in Bezalel we might draw lessons in our own search for leaders who can unite our nation in a common purpose: 

  • That a leader must know how to learn from others; to take the time to understand the experiences of others, taking care not to ignore their wisdom and contributions in addressing the challenges at hand.
  • A leader must also be able to apply knowledge to effect change.  This person must understand the “how” as well as the “what” when taking action.
  • A leader must be guided by a strong spiritual kinship, an inner-compass of ethics and values that shapes him or her and provides the motivation to do the work of repair.

Our nation, disillusioned and divided, needs a leader who will carry him or herself with embodied wisdom, with understanding and with insight. Only such a person can, as our next president, bring us together in common purpose from our diversity and continue the task of creating a more perfect union.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy