Stay at it
Below is the d’var torah I offered at the annual gathering of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) this past week. I have the honor of serving as the president of the ARJE, and shared this with my colleagues and fellow ARJE members on Monday, January 23, 2017.
“Lace up your shoes.
Stay at it.”
Not quite enough syllables for a haiku, but these nine simple words say so much. They are not my words. They are former president Barack Obama’s, from his final speech to the nation uttered just 10 or so days ago.
Lace up your shoes.
Stay at it.
These nine words exemplify three important aspects of what it takes to be a leader.
Leadership is about preparation. We “lace up our shoes.” We get ready to do the work, building the skills, putting the tools and resources we need in place that will enable us to do what needs be done.
Leadership is about showing up. It’s about being present. We have to be at the table, in the conversation, on the march, letting our voices be heard.
Leadership is about having the confidence to keep at it. The work can be hard. But we cannot give up. We have to “stay at it.”
In our parsha this week, we see Moses challenged by the third of these basic principles. God comes to Moses and says to him, for the second time, “ Go and tell Pharaoh, king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” And Moses replies, “The Israelites would not listen to me; now then should Pharaoh heed me, me – who gets tongue-tied!” (Exodus 6:12)
This isn’t the first time we hear Moses’ doubts about his own abilities to lead the Israelites. It is at the burning bush that Moses first claims his deficiencies for leadership, saying that he was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” which many of interpreted as meaning he had a speech impediment. Is he saying the same thing here?
Some commentators suggest in this moment Moses is speaking more about his capacity for leadership than his self-perceived physical challenges around it. Is he worthy of transmitting the divine word? Does he have the ability, the power, the confidence?
Well, let’s see. Is he prepared to be a leader? Has he “laced up his shoes?” In this instance, we might consider that actually his act of removing his shoes at the burning bush, his encounter with Ehyeh asher ehyeh was a moment of preparation – perhaps the ultimate moment of preparation – to do the job he was called to do. After removing his shoes, he had to put them back on, and with God’s blessing, leave that sacred space and sacred moment to begin the journey of bringing his people to liberation.
Did Moses show up? Yes, he did. He showed up for his people when he witnessed the Egyptian taskmaster beating the slave. He showed up for his people when God called to him from the burning bush and Moses responded, “Hineini – here I am.” And he showed up when he first gathered the elders of the Israelite community together to organize them and prepare for the action of escaping from Egypt.
So, why this moment of doubt? Why, when defeated by his first appearance before Pharaoh does Moses lose his confidence? Perhaps he didn’t think he could make a difference.
I’m sure we have all be there, like Moses feeling as if our small contributions wouldn’t make a difference.
Yet, do you really believe that? I don’t.
An African parable tells the story of the hummingbird who discovers a forest fire. She flies to the lake, scoops up a few drops of water into her tiny beak, carries that water back to the forest and drops that water onto a burning tree. Back and forth she goes, making little impact on the raging fire. Soon the other animals start laughing at her. The elephant says to her, “little hummingbird, do you really think you are going to be able to put out that fire all by yourself?” Her response, similar to our own Rabbi Tarfon’s, was: while I may not get the fire out, it is my duty to at least try.” Hearing her brave response, the other animals join in the effort, and together they put the forest fire out.
Alternatively, perhaps Moses didn’t believe in himself and his ability to succeed? This was a watershed moment – he was reaching the point of no turning back – and chickening out?
I’m sure we’ve each felt that too. We’ve thought, its just too hard to make this change really happen. The finish line is too far away, so I’m just not going to try.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot live without that hope and vision for the future. Do we really want to give up and just stay “stuck in our Egypts.” That’s not how we roll, as Jews. Otherwise, why would we say each year at the end of our seders, “Next year in Jerusalem.” – next year in a place that is ear-shalem, a place of wholeness.
Moses had his moments of doubt, just like we all do. Taking on the role of leadership is hard and sometimes scary work. Yet, in the end, Moses does succeed. He brings us out of slavery and into the Promised Land. That isn’t to say he is perfect. We know he wasn’t. Yes, he lost his patience at times. Yes, the Israelites complained to him and about him. Even his closest advisors – his brother and sister – complain. But, he keeps at it. He had to find is confidence and believe in his ability to make the change God and he dreamt of.
Former President Obama’s final words to the nation on that night in Chicago were, “I’m asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change.” This is what it means to “stay at it.” Believe in yourself.
As we begin these 3 days together, learning about and exploring our roles as Jewish educational leaders, I pray that we can find comfort and inspiration from our teacher Moses. He had doubts. He had fears. The road ahead was going to be long and hard. Yet he kept at it and didn’t give up. And I pray that we can be emboldened by the words of President Obama. Believe. We must believe in our abilities to bring about the changes we seek, so that we can each reach our Promised Land.
May we all:
Lace up our shoes.
And stay at it.