Spiritual Leadership

Moses_&_Bush_Icon_Sinai_c12th_centuryWe are all spiritual leaders in our daily lives. When we embody the gifts we have received through our religious traditions, we lead by example.

We all have different approaches to our leadership.

For example, earlier this week, in my role as Conference Program Chair for the OHALAH Association of Clergy for Jewish Renewal, I received the following email:

Hi Rabbi Duhan Kaplan: I am writing in regards to the annual Shabbaton conference, marketed to your members at https://ohalah.org/annual-conference/ You are promoting this conference as being held in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder’s deep natural beauty, vibrant culture, and energetic downtown are all selling points that may entice someone to come to attend a conference. In reality, what is really being sold to OHALA [sic] members is a conference in Broomfield, Colorado. This is 13.1 miles away from honesty. Leviticus 25:14 teaches us: “When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another.” I can only hope that your learnedness and high ethical standards are ultimately stronger than your aspiration for successful marketing. — Ploni Almoni*, Director of Sales, Competing Hotel in Boulder

Perhaps this was Ploni’s idea of spiritual leadership – clearly mixed with a bit of humour.  

I replied: Dear Ploni: Thanks for your kind and helpful note. We will ask the webmaster to correct the mistake as soon as she returns from her vacation. I’ll forward your email to the OHALAH Board, in case they would like to consider [your hotel] for a future conference. —Laura

This was my definitely my idea of spiritual leadership – mixed with a bit of humour. I don’t know if Ploni got my humour, but he did follow my lead, replying: Hi Rabbi: Thank you for your understanding and helpfulness. — Ploni

 At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we meet our tradition’s most important spiritual leader, Moshe. We read about his first impulse to activism, killing the violent taskmaster; his maturation into a husband and father; his Epiphany at the burning bush; his hesitations and doubts; his first confrontation with Pharaoh; and his discovery that his mission will be non-linear, heart-breaking, and way longer than he had imagined.

We can all find something to in Moshe’s story to inspire, instruct, or comfort us in our own spiritual leadership.

Reb Nachman of Breslov, the iconoclastic nineteenth-century Hasidic rebbe, also looked to Moshe for inspiration. Reb Nachman wanted to be the spiritual leader of his generation, rising above the petty competitions between rebbes. Moshe’s example, he thought, could show him how.

To grasp Nachman’s understanding of Moshe, we have to detour through Nachman’s theology.

For Nachman, God is Eyn Sof, divine infinity. Before the creation of the world, divine infinity simply abided in some unimaginable kind of seamless unity. Creation began when divine infinity contracted, creating a void in which the world as we know it could take shape. A single line of divine light flowed into the void, and wrapped around itself the newly created spiritual qualities of understanding, wisdom, love, judgment, endurance, gratitude, foundation and presence (the sephirot). But these spiritual qualities were not robust enough to hold divine infinity, so they shattered. Bits of the qualities scattered here and there, becoming shells (in Hebrew, kelipot) that trap and hide sparks of the divine light.

It doesn’t matter how you visualize this account in your imagination, or how you reason through its oddities. Reb Nachman says: Whatever you think is wrong. The whole story is based on a paradox: the void is both empty of God and filled with God. The human mind at its present level of development simply cannot grasp this paradox that is God’s relationship with creation.

Still, Reb Nachman says, we base our religious knowledge on what we understand about God. On the one hand, we might believe that God is everywhere, even hidden inside the kelipot, the shells. From this perspective, we might find God in Jewish tradition, in New Age spirituality, in secular philosophy, in mystical or magical practices. Or, on the other hand, we might believe that God has completely withdrawn from the world – or was never there in the first place. From that perspective, we might simply deny that any sort of spiritual reality exists at all. For Nachman, of course, that denial is ridiculous.

Some of the blame for atheism, Reb Nachman says, lies with religious people. We split into factions, debating and competing. Sometimes, our debates look ridiculous. Imagine, Reb Nachman says, imagine intellectual debate as a flowing river. Opinions about God are like the silt piled up on the banks – drawn to one side or the other, leaving a void in the middle, where atheism can take root. Of course, our religious debates are important; they create our religious landscape. But they have negative side effects too, weakening religion.

Reb Nachman reminds us that Jews are called Ivrim, Hebrews, literally: those who cross the river. Ideally, he says, we Jews can cross this river of disputes without getting caught up in atheism – because our shared theology says that God is Eyn Sof – infinite and absolutely everywhere. But to succeed in crossing, we need to emulate Moshe.

In Torah’s account of the Exodus, God causes the plagues in order that Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the Israelites may come to know God. This, Torah tells us four times* — presenting Pharaoh as the archetype of the person who completely denies the spiritual life. His heart is hard; he is stubborn. He clings to his atheism; he polarizes his own people; he harms them terribly.

Moshe knows that Pharaoh will not be won over by rational arguments. No one will be, because God’s nature is paradoxical. Instead, Moshe knows when to be silent. When God first appoints Moshe to leadership, Moshe protests, “I am not a man of words!”* In a famous Talmudic story, Moshe sees the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva. Moshe finds Akiva’s grisly death incomprehensible, a total mismatch with Akiva’s devotion to Torah. Moshe questions God, “This is Torah, and this is its reward?!” God replies, “Be silent.”*

Reb Nachman wishes to channel Moshe’s ability to be silent. To raise up people from their doubts without saying anything particular – but just by meeting them where they are, and being with them.

We all practice this kind of spiritual leadership: at home, on the street, on the grocery line, and while replying to email. May the Holy One guide our hearts, hands and minds.

*Not his real name. “Ploni Almoni” is Hebrew for “John Doe.” Four times: Exodus 8:6, 8:18, 9:26, 11:7. Moshe’s protest: Exodus 4:10. Talmudic story: Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29a.

Image: Icon of Moses, 12th Century, Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt

Sources: Reb Nachman, Likutey Moharan 64; Art Green, Tormented Master (Jewish Lights, 1992).

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