For the start of our 8th year, Derech Tsofeh is proud to present a d’var Torah by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Dean of Students of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Rabbi Feigelson writes in memory of his father, long-time Scouter Lou Feigelson, who passed away recently.
When I was 19 years old, I spent the year traveling around the country as National Chief of the Order of the Arrow. It was an amazing experience for ne in many ways, and one of them was that I met so many different people in every corner of the country. And even cooler was that so many of them wanted my autograph.
But here’s a secret: I’m not really a person who likes being at a party, and so meeting people all the time like that was actually a real challenge for me. You might say I was (and am) more of a cat person than a dog person. While I might start out at an event with a full tank of gas and happy to meet everyone (like a dog excited to have visitors), after a few hours of meeting people I wanted to go find a room and read a book to recharge (like a cat who wants to take a nap).
You can’t really be National Chief and be a cat person, though. If you’re going to be a public leader, you’ve got to be able to greet everyone with a smile and positive energy. So I figured out a trick: When my energy would start to lag, I would prepare myself before every encounter and say, “What can I learn from this person?” I realized that every person I met had something to teach me, and I wanted to figure out what it was. That little adjustment in my attitude helped a huge amount, and it’s something I continue to practice over two decades later.
Not to pat myself on the back, but Moshe seems like he was a similar kind of person. In contrast to his brother Aharon, whom the Mishnah refers to as someone who “loves people,” Moshe seems like more of a book person. He would rather be alone with God, studying Torah, than dealing with the constant stream of people who want his help and attention (if not his autograph). While that kind of person can be a good professor, he probably isn’t going to be a great political leader.
Moshe gets help of course at the beginning of Parshat Yitro, when his father-in-law points out that he can’t keep up with the constant demands of his new leadership position, and recommends that he set up a better structure to make it manageable. But we also see that Moshe really figured out the same lesson I learned – a long time before I did! – when we look at the end of this week’s parasha and what happens when Moshe gets a re-do in Parshat Ki Tissa.
In Parshat Yitro, the Torah tells us (Exodus 20:18) that Moshe stood at a distance from the people. After the experience of hearing God’s voice, he couldn’t relate to regular folks anymore, and they couldn’t relate to him. That seems to have had disastrous consequences, because the people ultimately build the Golden Calf, and he ultimately smashes the stone tablets of the law in anger.
But after the Golden Calf, Moshe gets a second chance. When he comes down the mountain the second time, the Torah tells us the people “feared approaching him.” But this time, the Torah continues, “Moshe called to them, and Aharon and all the chieftans in the assembly, and spoke to them.” (Exodus 34:30-31) What happened? Moshe realized that, in order to be a leader, it’s not enough to have the law on your side; you also need to be able to relate to the people you lead. I’d like to think that the deeper lesson that Moshe learned was to encounter every human being as the tzelem Elohim – the image of God – that they are, and to look for something not only that we can teach them, but that they can teach us.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson