Sunday, May 12, 2013

Leadership in the Wilderness

What is the Jewish equivalent of achieving Nirvana, and am I even allowed to compare my elation to that state of being?! But to use yet another phrase that may not be totally appropriate, I feel like I’ve hit the trifecta:

An advance reading copy;
Of a book by Erica Brown;
About the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar).

Yes, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority & Anarchy in the Book of Numbers by Dr. Erica Brown is hot off the presses of Maggid Books.

Reading an advance copy, also known as an ARC, is like being in on a secret before everyone else. How smug are you when people start talking about a book, and you can say, “I got an advance reading copy?” Since it’s not a “real” book, you can mark it up, not worry about folding down pages and making “dog ears,” and not worry about what the humidity conditions will do when you are in a steamy bathtub. The only drawbacks are that you cannot sell it, there is a twinge (infinitesimal) of guilt when you have to buy the final copy of the book because it was so good, and many times you cannot pass on the ARC to your friends.

I think I am Erica Brown’s number one fan, but not in a creepy, break your legs, Annie Wilkes from Misery way. When I read, the word that immediately comes to mind is “scholar.” But the second word is “teacher” because she makes her scholarship accessible to non-scholars like me. It is such a pleasure to read and learn and appreciate every turn of phrase, the succinct vocabulary, and the high level, in which Dr. Brown presents a topic or subject in such an unpretentious way.

When I saw In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks (Maggid Books, 2011), I grabbed it off the shelf. While the Jewish calendar often dictates that we should be happy (Sukkot) or sad (Tisha B’Av), it is often challenging to evoke these emotions in the course of daily living, even more so during the three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which falls out during the summer days of sunshine and vacation. The promise of the book’s description was fulfilled: “For each day of the Three Weeks, she presents a short, inspirational essay based on biblical texts followed by a kavana, a spiritual focus that involves reflection, imagination or action to transform these somber days of remembrance into a period of introspection and spiritual growth. Alongside the traditional prophecies of doom and consolation traditionally read during the Three Weeks, In the Narrow Places offers a new process for rebuilding and a re-affirmation of hope.”

I was lucky enough to get a review copy (almost as good as an ARC, but not quite) of Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe (Maggid Books, 2012). The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also challenging in terms of the hectic schedule of prayer in the synagogue, festive meals, and the excitement in the autumn air of going back to school and work. But Dr. Brown reminds us that “we have these ten days…to pray, to cry, to improve, to change, to forgive, to apologize, to become what we’ve meant to become, to return, to come home, to build a sanctuary that is repentance.” Each chapter centers on a theme from the quintessential Yom Kippur Prayer, the Vidduy, or confession. These themes include Faith, Compassion, Gratitude, and Anger. Let’s face it: it is the amazing person who can make a noticeable change in their outlook and behavior in just ten days. That’s why this book has to be in an easy access spot on the bookshelf. Pull it out during another period of contemplation, the Counting of the Omer, and see if you can make some more tweaks before Shavuot.

Finally, I love a good parsha book. I love seeing a pasuk come to life; seeing why the grammar is the way it is, seeing that no word in the Torah is superfluous, that everything is somehow connected. I also feel that reading a chapter on Friday night puts me more in touch with the Torah, especially when the text describes things like sacrifices in The Temple, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, or Moses not being allowed to enter Israel. Even with points of view with which I do not agree, I give credit to the author as I think, “How did he get that from the text? That’s an interesting take.”

Dr. Brown has studied leadership using both biblical textual analysis and modern management theory before. Her Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) explores Jewish leadership through “ancient models of Jewish leadership, contemporary professional business literature, and Jewish texts. Dr. Erica Brown lays the framework for working through important leadership issues and illustrates how great leadership can be learned when you are equipped with resources, reflective training, and a helpful network of mentors. It includes personal anecdotes from experienced Jewish leaders, questions for reflection, and easy-to-do exercises. It is a valuable sourcebook is ideal for professionals and volunteers who want to hone their own skills as well as facilitate group leadership development.”

This outing focuses on the leadership of Moses, the environment (physical, emotional, spiritual) in which Moses “managed” the Israelites, and the passing of this mantle of leadership to Joshua. As I was reading, I thought of the “nature versus nurture” argument. It seems the wilderness brought out the worst in many people, but as the same time, honed the skills of the leadership to deal with the challenges, although Moses was often exasperated with God’s followers. Through Brown’s careful analysis, we see that “the wilderness experience” shaped the nation. Through plagues and punishment the numbers were winnowed and a new generation entered the Land of Israel.

That said, Erica Brown’s new book is satisfying on so many levels. In the preface, she lays out the elements of the equation, so to speak. “The wilderness is an excellent metaphor for leadership that depends on flexible skills to confront unexpected dangers and unanticipated dramas.” The “rules” are “a set of commandments designed as a moral and spiritual constitution to determine and shape the character and commitments of a nation. Receiving them in a place of transition, we were to understand that the rules we live by transcend any limited boundaries. They were given to us to shape a future that would always be precarious and unknown.” Looking at parshiot like Korach and Balak, it is clear that “leaders in Numbers faced a breakdown of authority, the decay of trust and faith, and the near anarchic rabble-rousing of those beset by discontent.” What kind of leadership did it take to take a group of slaves out of Egypt to meet their destiny?

She notes that almost every leadership encounter in Numbers falls within the framework of “critical interplay between the desire to be ruled by power-hungry leaders and the divine mandate to limit human power through constitutional leadership.”

I know that many people do not like to mix in secular sources when studying Torah, but I love the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.” A perfect description of the Israelites forging a new identity and contending with all the emotions involved in dealing with a strange environment and new rules.

This book does not go through the parshiot in order. Rather, it hits on themes and leadership issues: the Nazarite as gadfly (Parshat Naso); the juxtaposition of the “scouts/spies” episode with the commandment of tzitzit and Korach’s rebellion (Parshat Shelach), as well as the passion (zealotry) of Pinchas.

Needless to say, I suggest everyone run out and get a copy immediately!

On a reading break, I had to go to the American Consulate. Right near the Consulate is S.Y. Agnon’s house. Although there was a school there on a tour, the director graciously let me run up and see the library and Agnon’s Nobel Prize:

Hag Shavuot Sameach and Happy Reading!

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