Friday, April 21, 2017

Blame the followers? On Leadership- Shemini

I lay awake at 4:30 am the other day. Not for very long, but still unusual for me to be awake worrying about work. I tend to do my worrying during the day.

Fear of failure is a natural part of leadership. However, I wonder to what extent a leader needs to feel responsible for outcomes that are ultimately dependent on the choices of many people, whether active supporters or disinterested “followers”? Perhaps leadership is overrated. Some leaders appear successful, when in fact they are merely taking people where they want to go anyway.  Should the primary potency and responsibility be recognised as being with the followers instead? Perhaps this idea is a form of shirking of my responsibilities as a leader disguised as modesty. On the other hand, I know that my mental and emotional strength as a leader is enhanced by the generous appreciative  engagement of my “followers”, either as participants in my work or at my Torah discussions.   

In the Torah reading this week we read how Aaron was encouraged to approach the altar when he was bashful and fearful about performing sacrifices on the altar (1). Aaron imagined the altar resembling an ox and this reminded him about his past failure when he built an altar for a false god, the golden calf (2). Aaron carried the burden of that failure for the rest of his life. Yet the main stimulus for him being involved with the golden calf was the loss of faith by the people, which all but forced his hand.

The wording of the phrase in which Aaron was invited to approach the altar relates to the question of the impact of followers on their leaders. “Moses said to Aaron, a) "Approach the altar and perform your sin offering…and atone for yourself and [atone] for the people, and b) perform the people's sacrifice, and atone for them (3). This appears quite repetitive, Aaron is told twice to atone for the people. However, the atonement for the people actually involves two different elements. Aaron’s offering of a calf as a personal sin offering for himself is also partially an atonement for the people (4). Aaron’s sin is not only his own. This idea is also found in the way the offering of the anointed priest’s offering is described as well. “If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt of the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed, an unblemished young bull as a sin offering to the Lord” (5).

A sheikh I know reflected that we spend a lot of time giving leadership courses, perhaps we would be better off teaching people how to be followers. To all who have supported me in my work or teaching, thank you for helping me be as strong, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as I am. Thank you to the Australian supporter who sent me text messages about helping me from a hotel room in New York yesterday, at 7:00 am his time, while on holiday with his family. Thank you to the people who attend my Torah discussion group on a Saturday afternoon, who offer their thoughts, reflections and questions. Thank you dear reader for spending your precious time reading my thoughts. The success of leaders belongs to their followers as well as to the them. And when they fail, the buck stops with them... and perhaps a little bit with their followers too.


  1. Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  2. Raavad cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  3. Leviticus 9:7.
  4. Abarbanel, Vayikra, p.108 (Chorev edition). Abarbanel’s interpretation of the atonement for the people that was included in Aaron’s offering is that Aaron’s sin “was a great stumbling block for the people”. However, his reference to the verse in Leviticus 4:3 can be plausibly interpreted in the way that I am suggesting in this post, even though this is not quite the way he explains it.
  5. Leviticus 4:3. The translation is mine, others such as the translation on renders it as “If the anointed kohen sins, bringing guilt to the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Prominence of animal sacrifices in Torah - Tzav

At the end of the Passover Seder last week, a former student asked me why the Torah includes so much detail about animal sacrifices. I haven't found a satisfactory answer yet. This aspect of my tradition “doesn’t work for me”, yet it is talked about endlessly in the Torah. Animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism for two millennia, and is barely a “thing” for modern Jews. However, the vast number of chapters dedicated to instructions about sacrifices in the Torah is evidence that this aspect of my tradition is highly significant (1). A shocking story I read on Saturday makes it clear that traditional Judaism has little tolerance for avoidance of this confronting practice.

Modern Jews are not the first to have reservations about animal sacrifice. At first glance it seems that the ancient Hebrew prophets already thundered against the practice. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want(2).

However, the critique of sacrifices by the prophets is not what it might seem. The verse preceding the one about the unwanted goats blood, sets the context by referring to Sodom. Sodom primarily represents cruelty to strangers and the poor, and theft in Jewish tradition (3), rather than homosexuality. Later in the chapter the prophet calls on the Jews to “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow”. He call their leaders “…companions of thieves” (4). So the critique is not of sacrifice itself, which if done properly should remind people about God and lead them away from sin and therefore be pleasing to God, but a complaint about sacrifices that have not fulfilled their purpose (5).  

The Talmud (6) tells a gruesome story about a priest who was less than thrilled with the honor of offering sacrifices. the Temple courtyard cried four cries...Leave here, Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai, who honors himself and desecrates the items consecrated to Heaven. He would wrap his hands in silk and perform the service.

What ultimately happened to Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai? ...the king and the queen were sitting. The king said that goat meat is better, and the queen said lamb meat is better. They said: Who can prove which one of us is correct? The High Priest can, as he offers sacrifices all day. Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai came, and when they asked him this question, he signaled with his hand (in a mocking/humorous way) (7) and said: If goat is better, let it be sacrificed as the daily offering.The king said: Since he has no reverence for the monarchy, sever his right hand. He gave a bribe and the official severed his left hand. The king heard and had the official sever his right hand as well.(8).

The story is clearly linked to the symbolic and potent spiritual meanings of the sacrifices. Yissachar, in his covering his hands exhibited the opposite of the spirit of humility required in seeking closeness to God which is at the heart of these rituals (9). In fact, the Torah’s word to describe animal sacrifices is קרבן, which means “to bring or come close”. The verse the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn it(10),  is interpreted symbolically as describing processes of the soul and the heart. “All the evil and dark thoughts (represented by) the night, and unsavoury lusts..need to be burnt...consumed by love of God...” (11).

A mystical interpretation draws attention to the Godly fire that descended from heaven, which consumed the sacrifices, while the animals themselves are also identified with fire. In this approach, inanimate things are related to the element of earth, the vegetable kingdom is linked to water, while animals are related to fire. The ritual of an animal being sacrificed is meant to evoke a reaction in the fiery animalistic aspect of people to assist them in a spiritual journey of subduing and ultimately transforming the animal aspects of the soul (12).

None of this mystical or symbolic talk is much comfort to a goat that is being slaughtered. However, for those of us who are not vegetarian, I don’t think it is a deep respect for the life of animals that causes us to recoil from animal sacrifice, as much as it is a squeamish distaste for the confronting image of a life being extinguished. Yet, it appears that the confronting and messy nature of the killing, processing and burning of animals fat, flesh and blood is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a vital part of the Jewish tradition (even if not actually practiced any more). Judaism is not meant to be an opium of the masses or source of inner peace. It is meant to be a disruptive, disturbing confrontation between finite sensual humans and their demanding, engaged God who calls them to justice, worship and self transcendence.     


  1. Ramban in his refutation of Maimonides.
  2. Isaiah 1:10-11.
  3. Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.
  4. Isaiah 1:17,23.
  5. Radak on Isaiah 1:11. Rashi takes a similar approach.
  6. Rashi on Pesachim 57b.
  7. Maharsha on Pesachim 57b, points out the significance of his right hand being severed in that the main service in the temple was done with the right hand and he put silks on his hands during the service, it was decreed in heaven that he he could not save himself with his left hand.
  8. R. Bchaya, on Leviticus 6:3, p. 423 (Mosad Rav Kook edition).
  9. Leviticus 6:2.
  10. Abarbanel based on Kuzari, p. 80.
  11. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in Likutei Torah, Parshas Pinchas, p.150

Sunday, April 2, 2017

In the moment but treasuring past triumphs- Tzav

Image by Jean Beaufort reproduced under CC0 Public Domain 
I was preparing a talk for 50 public servants recently. Although I could impress them with my best stories gathered over the years, I chose not to because that would not be authentic to where I am at right now. Instead I chose to reflect on a traditional Aboriginal story about a “Thicky Billa” (Echidna), that I read very recently that moved me. I shared how learning about the way Aboriginal people transmitted their teachings about being responsibility-centred vs. desire-centred spoke to me as a Jewish man. I also reflected on my delight being inspired by “Black Fella wisdom” as a former ‘racist’ from Brooklyn.

The principle of being present in the moment is linked to the Torah reading this week. In the temple ritual, there was a daily procedure that involved removing ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices [i]. One interpretation of this ritual is that we must not dwell on yesterday’s fire. The ritual “signified that each day we renewed our commitment to comply with all that is incumbent upon us…the relics of the previous day’s ritual must be removed before the new days ritual can begin…This must be done in worn out and old clothes [ii]. One must not regale oneself in pomp for that which belongs to the past; it is superseded by the present mitzvah (commandment) that each day bids us [iii]”.

This beautiful teaching could be taken to mean that we should completely forget yesterday’s struggles and achievements. I don’t think this is right. We can draw strength and learn lessons from past triumph over both personal and external challenges. If we juxtapose other commentaries with the one above we can discern a more nuanced message.

One teaching about the removal of ashes focuses on the word in the Torah that implies taking some (of the ashes) but leaving some [iv]. Another teaching suggests that one only needed to remove 10% of the ashes, leaving the other 90% in place [v]. Another aspects of the ritual required that the ashes were gently [vi] put down on the side of the altar rather than thrown away or spread out. It was put in a place where the winds did not blow strongly [vii].

These teachings suggest that what need to do is not forget past experiences of service, but rather that we must ensure that there is sufficient head space for adding new accomplishments alongside those of yesterday. However, we can certainly hold the past dear and cherish it.

The ashes are also linked to the need for humility. On the other hand the lifting up of the ashes is symbolic of God lifting up those who are humbled [viii]. Our spirits need to be strengthened, to focus on meeting the challenges of today. One source of that nourishment may well be awareness of the progress on our journey so far.

[i] Leviticus 6:3.
[ii] See Rashi on 6:4.
[iii] Hirsch, S. R. In his commentary on Leviticus 6:3-4.
[iv] Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma Chapter 2:1, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 141, 44, similar argument is made in Gur Arye.
[v] Talmud, Yoma 24a.
[vi] Torat Kohanim, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 142.
[vii] Maimonides, laws of Temidim Umusafim, 2:15 according to the Roman print cited in Torah Shlaima, p146, 50.
[viii] Klei Yakar on Leviticus 6:3.