Sunday, July 2, 2017

Leadership and The Red Herring

Tomato herring, Kutsher's photo by John Margolies

Leadership and The Red  Herring

At Touro Synagogue

July 1, 2017

For Jewish Newport 
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On Shabbat, Touro Synagogue had a full house. It was so crowded that I sat in a corner, until I realized that the corner was the one place in shul where there wasn’t a cross breeze. No more corners for me.

Another week another parsha! Today it was Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1.  Rabbi Marc Mandel said there was a lot of action in the parsha. For starters, there was the red heifer. The related commandment is difficult to understand. The Rabbis wisely threw up their hands and said it was a command from Heaven. 

I think Rabbi Mandel agreed with the sages. There aren’t many things that flummox our Rabonim, but this is one of them.

What else is red and difficult to explain? “Red herring” comes to mind.

I turned to google for help:
noun: red herring; plural noun: red herrings
  1. a dried smoked herring, which is turned red by the smoke.
  2. something, especially a clue, that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting."The book is fast-paced, exciting, and full of red herrings.”

When herring is cured (smoked and salted), the story goes, it turns red. Fugitives from justice put a red herring on the trail to distract the dogs that were tracking them.

And a green herring? Nathan Ausubel’s, “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore” has the answer,

“What’s, green, hangs on a wall, and whistles?
“I don’t know.”
“A herring.”
“But a herring isn’t green.”
“It could be painted green.”
“But a herring doesn’t hang on a wall.”
“It could be hung on a wall.”
“But a herring doesn’t whistle.”
“Nu, so it doesn’t whistle.”

Enough about herring!

In his words of Torah, Rabbi Marc Mandel focused on Moshe’s leadership style. He started with a pithy quote from Warren Bennis,  “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Peter Drucker, a management pundit, has this to say about leaders,

“All the effective leaders I have encountered-both those I worked with and those I merely watched-knew four simple things:

“1. The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. Some people are thinkers. Some are prophets. Both roles are important and badly needed. But without followers, there can be no leaders.

“2. An effective leader is not someone who is loved or admired. He or she is someone whose followers do the right things. Popularity is not leadership. Results are.

“3. Leaders are highly visible. They therefore set examples.

“4. Leadership is not rank, privileges, titles, or money. It is responsibility.”

“How did Moses measure up?” Rabbi Mandel continued,“Well, let’s see. Moshe sent out twelve men to evaluate the land of Israel – which resulted in the people panicking and wanting to go back to Egypt: that was not the right thing to do; not good leadership, not a positive example

“In today's parsha, Moshe strikes the rock, instead of speaking to it. That was not the way he was supposed to do it, and it was not good management.

“In our own lives, are we good managers? Do we manage our lives effectively or do we just run from one crisis to the next–can we learn how to be better managers in midlife?”

Visiting Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the founder and principal of SAR High School spoke at the Kiddish, which was sponsored by friends of Touro Synagogue. Last month, Rabbi Harcsztark won the Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education.

Not that Rabbi Harcztrark planned to speak at the Kiddush. When Rabbi Mandel senses that a tasty herring is at Touro Synagogue, he pounces. If you are a piece of herring, warning given!

After our plates and palates were sated, he also spoke about Moshe hitting the rock, which led God to prohibit Moshe from entering the promised land. 

As a teacher, Rabbi Harcsztark shared with his students the many commentaries about Moshe and the rock. Although he did not understand it, he could not avoid teaching Maimonides. For Maimonides, Moshe’s transgression was his anger, shown when, before striking the rock, he said, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

Many years later students who were graduating made a display which included the work of each student. At the bottom of his display, one student wrote, “Rabbi Harcsztark, thank you for giving me a second chance.” 

One of the duties of school principal is dealing with students who misbehave. In this case, Rabbi Hartcszark had calmly expressed faith that the student would get his act together. But until he saw the student’s thank-you note, he didn’t realize the impact that he had on the student.

In a relationship, such as teacher to student, parent to child, or in any relationship, how we react to a situation can have a profound impact on the other person. Do we lose our tempers?  Are we overly critical? Are we demeaning? What we say to someone, and how we say it, may have a profound effect on their self-image, an effect that may last for years. 

Moshe’s punishment was for his anger, and for expressing it by angrily calling the Children of Israel “rebels.” When we are critical, our tone and our emotions can have as much or even more weight than our words.

Shabbat Shalom!