Do we believe in miracles? It’s interesting, because in typical Jewish fashion, miracles are complicated. Our miracles don’t “fall out of the sky”. We have many apocryphal stories of people waiting for miracles. Did you hear the one about the man who prayed to God that he should win the lottery? After many years of no success, the man says to God, “I can’t believe in You if you don’t answer my prayer.” And God responds, “I do hear you. Can you buy a ticket?” It’s a silly story I know, but what is it telling us?
Sometimes we want all the good things in life, or even justice in the world, and we are not willing to put ourselves out for it. We want God to solve the problem without our risk. Can I win the lottery if I don’t play? No. But of course we all know that just because I spend the $1, doesn’t mean I’ll win. That’s our burden. This is where we declare our faith.
From the beginnings of the Jewish people we have had to take risks to reap the miracle. Nachshon steps into the waters of the Red Sea. As the water rises to his neck, he maintains his faith that God will split the sea. And it does. Esther enters the King’s chambers knowing full well that with one word she could be beheaded, yet the King acknowledges her and her people are saved. The Maccabees take up arms against the most powerful army of the time, with the odds of success looking dim. Yet, the few defeat the army and the Temple is rededicated. On this 25th anniversary of the Soviet Jewry rally, we think back to the refusniks who gave up everything, waiting for the miracle of their freedom.
This isn’t about God meeting you half way. God’s miracles are larger in scope than our actions, and quite honestly, we are the only ones risking anything. God will succeed. We are the only ones unsure.
Why is this such a vital point for leaders?
I don’t mean to speak for God, but it seems like if you aren’t willing to put it all on the line, God will not step in.
This is a particularly important lesson for today’s leaders. We have gotten soft. There isn’t much that we need to fight for, and that has made us less willing to take risks. Particularly in the Jewish community, as we move away from business, where risk is inherent, to professions and service areas where risk is mitigated, we are losing our edge.
What risks are you willing to take to free Alan Gross? Who took a risk to save Gilad Shalit? We are so lucky that in most cases we don’t have to risk our lives – and yet we won’t even risk our reputation. Many times we won’t even risk failure.
This attitude is not going to work for us. We must take big risks in order to see big miracles in our day.
Sometimes I think the world has gone crazy.
I just finished watching a Starbucks commercial that showcased the company reuniting a son and mother after years of not seeing each other because of financial hard times. This is how Starbucks is selling itself. There was no mention of coffee, let alone the quality, availability, price, or anything else that is directly related to their product.
This multi-million dollar company is selling itself based solely on its good deeds.
Now, if I could believe that we had finally gotten to an era when even giant corporations are thinking and doing good because all of us are more concerned with helping others, I’d get up and do a jig. Although it would probably look more like a hora, being that I have only Russian and Polish in my blood.
The truth is more sinister I believe.
Why is Starbucks trumpeting its good deeds? Is it because we care about helping others? If that were the case, then the income of non-profits would be bursting. If every consumer really made the welfare of others their most important priority, then donations would be pouring in.
But they’re not. Because we are not interested in how best to help others.
Starbucks recognizes that we pay lip service to assistance while we really want to feel better about serving ourselves.
If I am going to pay over $3 for a cup of coffee, I feel better about doing it if I think Starbucks will do something nice with my money. Target gives millions to charities. Does it occur to people that they could give their money directly to the charity instead of using Target as their agent of good? Probably. But if I donate directly, I don’t get my ipad. See, if I buy an ipad from Target and then they give some charity with a piece of the money – everyone wins, right? Wrong! Starbucks and Target understand that really they are the winners. Sure a small portion of their profits go to charity, but how much more do they rake in if you feel you are doing good by buying their products? They’re banking on a lot more. We are spending not only our material budgets but our charitable budgets there too.
We are turning into an incredibly selfish people. Everything is beginning to revolve around us. Even our charity. We need to be careful and redouble our efforts to give in the spirit of giving. Not because it’s a win-win, but because it’s a you win.
Having the dubious privilege to live next to a “swing state”, I am breathing a sigh of relief that the campaign season is over. Now I can go back to looking at green(ish) lawns, watching ads on TV that don’t depress me (sometimes I watch live TV), and answering my phone.
The red and blue ice map in Rockefeller Center got me thinking about what it would look like to boil down my personal leadership to a map of colors. Few leaders have the chance to reflect on the segments of their constituencies. Do you know who makes up your “solid states”? Where are your “swing states” and what defines your battleground?
Have you considered your platform lately? What is your level of engagement? The tenor of your discourse? Are you running mostly negative ads? What are you offering people as a vision? How do you work across the aisle?
How do you build belief in your organization and how do you move forward?
At the Jewish Leadership Institute’s Signature Course, you can explore the answers to these questions and more. Focus on your leadership over 6 classes that explore building better organizations, your call to leadership, managing conflict and orchestrating change. See this link for more information.
Personally, right now I’m exploring why my favorite color is purple.
Why aren’t we built to last? Did you notice how quickly we move from “very good” to “wickedness” and “very evil” in the Bible? It takes only 109 verses!
By the end of the first Parsha, or Torah portion, God is out to destroy all mankind and only Noah is still good.
How did we fall so fast? And what does this teach us that might be valuable for our leadership roles?
The Christians like to point to the Garden of Eden as the root of man’s descent, and they have a lot to base that opinion on. The sole choice of eating the “apple” represented man’s selection of temptation over divine law. But there is more. Cain and Abel brought jealousy into the world, judging others and feelings of inadequacy when measured against each other. The longevity of people is highlighted as a root of their evil behavior and God shortens men’s lives to 120 years at best.
What do we learn from these stories and how can it help us avoid pitfalls?
Our ability to choose is at the core of our humanity. However, our urge to select the short-term rush over the long-term gain can lead us right down the rabbit hole. Adam and Eve are a cautionary tale of how much is sacrificed if you don’t defend your legacy at the expense of immediate gratification.
Jealousy and judging others can unravel even the closest of relationships. Think about it. There were only four people in the world. How much closer can you get? And yet, when we make life about who gets more, who is favored, or what do I deserve – we quickly learn that no relationship can survive. The world does not work according to our sense of justice. Holding people accountable for that can destroy the world.
How many of us have experienced being at something too long? Whenever we are stuck somewhere beyond our ability to grow, things begin to decay. People lived too long. They began jaded, full of themselves, cynical. They began to corrupt society, maybe because they were bored.
As leaders and as people, our first lessons of the Bible are to make wise choices, to step back and think through legacy before rushing to selection, to avoid measuring others and focus on ourselves and making ourselves better people, and to know when to exit.
Either that, or know how to tread water really well.
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."—Anne Frank
Beginner’s mind. Sometimes as we get older we forget what it’s like to be completely new to an experience. We tend to gravitate to doing the same things over and over and not reach out to the unknown. Yet, when we try to change ourselves, and when are we not trying, we are always trying something new. We forget how difficult it is to approach anything new because we are inexperienced in newness as we age.
This week, Judaism gives us the opportunity to think again with our beginner’s mind. We begin the cycle of the Torah reading again. Not only that, we are literally starting at the beginning of life when everything was new.
We learn a few important lessons from this “beginner’s mind.”
1. At the beginning, everything is good. God looks at each day’s creation and remarks, it was good. Anything we attempt has the potential to be good, maybe even very good. How does our attitude change when we look at each new challenge as starting with good?
2. We all make mistakes at the beginning. I know I will wrinkle some noses when I say that even God is recorded as making a mistake during creation. But let’s look at this for the message it sends us, not for trying to give God any attributes. God creates one man. The Bible then records that he was lonely. God says, it is not good. Then God creates woman. If God can “learn” from looking at his first attempts, what can we expect but to make mistakes and learn from them as well?
3. Beginnings are really hard. We are charting new territory and we have no idea what’s right and wrong sometimes. Even when things look clear with hindsight, we can recognize that in the moment the choices were not that apparent. When Cain kills Abel, did he know that killing was wrong? Did he even know how to kill someone? When we think about the murkiness of newness, is there room for understanding and not blame?
As we set off on our new Jewish year, how do we bring this feeling of beginning into our lives? How do we open ourselves to new experiences and allow for others to be in a new space? How do we keep meeting the challenge of change and not get ourselves and others stuck in the rut of experience? Where can we look for new challenges? Where can we flex our beginner’s mind for positive effect?
"Be the change you wish to see in the world."