Individuality and Leadership by Gevura Davis
The Torah is G-d’s instruction manual for how people can live meaningful and productive lives. It is filled with guidance and life lessons. One practical application is leadership, with beautiful examples set for us from the great Torah leaders in the Bible.
Moses was considered the greatest prophet who ever lived because of his close connection to G-d. He was also the master leader who brought the Jewish people out of Egypt and shepherded them through 40 very difficult years of wandering in the desert. Known for his humility, his loyalty to G-d and spiritual greatness, Moses actually teaches us another successful paradigm of leadership in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.
Among Moses’s many unbelievable leadership qualities were the ability to recognize that each person is an individual and to treat each person accordingly. When G-d informs Moses that he will not be entering the Land of Israel with the Jewish people, his first response is: "Let G-d, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation" (Numbers 17:16).
The great Torah commentator Rashi (12th century, France) explains what he meant, quoting the Midrash: "You know that the mind of one individual is not similar to that of another. Appoint a leader over the congregation who will be able to deal with every individual according to his mind.” Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, a great Rabbi who successfully led the famed Mirrer yeshiva while it fled to Shanghai during World War II, commented that while a public speaker might play a major role in influencing others, he is not a true leader. A true leader is one who understands every person individually and deals with each one accordingly. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2) states regarding this verse: "Just as the facial features of people are different, so too are their faculties of thought." For this reason, Moses requested that God choose a leader who would be capable of dealing with every person according to their individual mentality.
So what can we as Jewish mothers and fathers learn from this? We are each the spiritual leader of our families. It is up to us to recognize what the spiritual needs are of ourselves, our spouses and our children. And each person is different. What speaks and inspires one person may not appeal to everyone. So we must ask ourselves critical questions. Are our flames of spirituality continuing to stay lit? We are often the ones responsible for ensuring that each child receives the right experiences to ensure their Jewish flames will be sparked. In a society where we are very aware of educational differentiation, are we applying these same principals to each of our own Jewish educations, both formal and informal?
Moses was amazing in his recognition that each individual needed their leader to know and act according to each individual’s personality. King Solomon further tells us in Proverbs the same is true with children: “Educate a child according to his or her own way, and even when they grow old, they will never part from that way” (22:6).
On our JWRP trip, we learn about understanding our and others’ unique personality traits. Applying this to our own children’s Jewish education can be challenging, especially when they have different personality types than us. We may imagine an idyllic Shabbat dinner with all of the kids sitting around singing and discussing ideas. What if one child doesn’t enjoy singing or it’s hard for him or her to sit at the table? We might want each our children to go to the same Hebrew school or day school? But what if it doesn’t cater to their learning style? We may look forward to baking and cooking Shabbat meals with our daughters and, lo and behold, they might hate to cook. What if we want a house full our guests every Shabbat and our spouse wants a quiet family meal? Often we presume that our way is the way, and we hope our spouse and children will fit the mold we create for them.
Moses’s leadership provides an excellent suggestion: Recognize that people are different and hope and pray that we can be the leaders our families need to respond to this reality. There is no one-size-fits-all with Judaism. In our beautiful and rich heritage there is plenty of space within the commandments for individualization. If we truly hope that our children pass on the torch of our amazing faith, we must really understand who they are. What makes them feel inspired? What makes them feel too squashed? What critical skills must they learn to be thinking Jews? What youth groups and Jewish organizations will help them get there?
Being the spiritual leaders of our homes is both empowering and daunting. We have a great responsibility to provide a Jewish environment where each family member can feel inspired and connected. Using Moses’s sage example of recognizing the needs of each individual paired with the amazing wisdom we received at JWRP is a great way to inspire our families.
Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth and Family Division of the Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park, outside of Philadelphia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.