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Towers, Floods, and Leaders (Noach 5780)

Ron Heifetz, a popular professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, began the first day of class by sitting in a black swivel chair in the front of the classroom, staring at the ground with a blank, slightly bored, look on his face. Unlike most professors, who might walk into the room, take attendance, and launch into a lecture, he just sits there. He doesn’t welcome the dozens of students. He doesn’t clear his throat. He just sits there.

The students sit expectantly, waiting. Class should have started...but the silence grows heavier. One student laughs. Another coughs. There is a general, unspoken confusion among the students. 

Someone finally speaks, saying, “I think this is the class?”

With that, a popcorn-like conversation, slow and measured at first, then gathering pace and fervor, breaks out among roughly 100 strangers:

“Is he just going to sit there?”

“I don’t have all day.”

“No, I think this is the point.”

“So, what should we do?”

“Shhhhh...Maybe he’s getting ready to speak.”

“Don’t shush me. I have every right to talk.”

This goes on for a few minutes. Eventually, Professor Heifetz looks up at the class and, to everyone’s great relief, says, “Welcome to Adaptive Leadership.”

I love this story, as told in Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, because it reminds us that leaders need followers, followers need leaders, and that leadership itself can change and adapt. In other words, the whole system of who we are and how we are is dependent on the presence or absence of each other.

In the case of the students in Professor Heifetz’s class, he wanted them to fill the void, figure out what was going on, and act. His (seeming) inaction brought them to fill the void, to figure out what was going on, and to do something about it. 

We constantly adapt. We adapt to a new baby in the family. We adapt to life without a beloved spouse. We adapt to tonight’s “falling back” as we end Daylight Saving Time. How we react to life’s challenges reflects how we each are leaders and followers - whether of a nation, a community, a family, or even ourselves.

Naturally, we look to our history - and our Torah stories - to find examples of leadership. After the flood in Parshat Noach, human beings were concentrated in one geographical area and “all of the earth was of one language and of one cultural expression.” The leadership wanted to preserve that situation.

They constructed a tower in order to make a name for themselves. According to legend, many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, no one took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brick-making when she went into labor. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and then she went on moulding bricks.

While these leaders had goals, they lacked compassion. While they had vision, they lost sight of their humanity. And through an extraordinary act of divine intervention, “the Lord came down and confounded their speech … and scattered them from there throughout the face of the whole earth.” God mixed up their language so that one did not understand the other. They desired to speak to one another, but they no longer possessed a common language. Thus, when one asked his neighbor for an ax, the latter brought him a spade. In his anger, the former killed the latter. Then every man took his sword, and they fought against one another. Half of the world fell by the sword. [As for the rest], “God scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Poor leaders, bad choices, and a disastrous end. When leadership breaks down and becomes toxic, the ability of followers to communicate with each other dissolves as well.

Where else might we look for an example of good leadership? Perhaps we start with the beginning of the portion: with Noach himself. As our reading began, Noach was a righteous man in his generation. Our rabbis debate whether Noah would have been considered righteous in other generations as well. Was he truly and honestly righteous? Or was he just the best one out of a whole lot of really, really bad people? Was Noach a good leader? Was he a leader at all? Or, perhaps he was just in the right place at the wrong time.

I don’t see Noach as a leader that we might want to emulate, but I don’t think he was a bad leader. Questionable, perhaps. As a righteous man in his generation, he was truly in - and among - his generation. He was one of them. He wasn’t this incredible prophet, like Moses. He was the best of the pretty awful, truth be told. But in that absence of leadership, Noach became the leader God needed him to be. He adapted and changed, reacting to life’s challenges - and God’s directions - as best he could.

We’ve seen bad leadership in the story of Bavel. We’ve seen mediocre and situational leadership in the story of Noach. And in both cases, we’ve seen leaders and  followers.

What we’ve yet to see: a good leader.

So what if there isn’t one? What if we don’t know what a good leader looks like, or acts like? What if we don’t know whom to follow?

It’s been said: the one who becomes a leader is not the one that knows the way but the one who behaves as if he or she does. To put that in terms we might understand: b’makom she’ain anashim, hishtadel lehiyot ish. In a place where no one is acting like a person - or a leader - but even just a decent person, strive to be that person. In a world where so-called leaders can lie, cheat, steal, hide taxes, and bully women, minorities, and people with disabilities, we have an obligation to step into that void. 

I’m not suggesting we all need to run for office, though we should certainly vote for those who are running in elections this week. But I am suggesting that we must all strive to be the leaders we need. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written the Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership. Today I’ll focus just on the first: Leadership begins with taking responsibility. Rabbi Sacks reminds us that many of the stories in the opening chapters of Genesis are about failures of responsibility. And he points to Noah, “righteous, perfect in his generations,” who has no effect on his contemporaries.

By contrast, Rabbi Sacks explains, at the beginning of Exodus Moses takes responsibility. When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervenes. When he sees two Israelites fighting, he intervenes. In Midian, when he sees shepherds abusing the daughters of Yitro, he intervenes. Moses, an Israelite brought up as an Egyptian, could have avoided each of these confrontations, yet he did not. He is the supreme case of one who says: when I see wrong, if no one else is prepared to act, I will.

At the heart of Judaism are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.

We must all remember that the whole system of who we are and how we are is dependent on the presence or absence of each other. And that in seeming inaction, or negative action, we must react. We must be the leaders, not because we want some kind of authoritarian control, and not because we’re the best of the not-so-great, but because it’s the right thing to do. 

As we say in our daily liturgy, we should be ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, lovers of peace and pursuers of peace. And may that peace, that shalom, that wholeness and holiness come speedily in our day. Amen.