Naso 2017-Stepping Forward into Leadership

It always amazes me who, amongst a group of leaders, are able, and more important, willing, to take a first step without truly knowing what the outcome will be. Over the past week at SPS we have been thinking about leadership, both the positive and the negatives, as we looked at the role of protest in the book of Numbers last week-we discussed what was a meaningful way to protest, and what wasn’t.

But in this week’s parasha , parashat naso, we have a reminder of the different clans of Israelites and the role that each of their leaders play. It was not surprising to me, when I read the parasha, that it was Nahshon Ben Aminadav who brought the offerings first since it was Nahshon who took the first step into  the red sea when it was unclear if the waters would overtake the Israelites in front of them, with the Egyptians chasing from behind.

What is clear to me is that the people who are successful are the ones who can begin to think beyond themselves and their personal needs only, but who can understand that we are part of a connected world beyond our small square of where we reside.

It was with this in mind that I was disappointed in President Trump’s decision to pull out of the paris accord this week. There are many smarter politicians who can speak to the question as to whether this was the right deal, the best deal, or the only deal. For me, as an observer, it would seem that even if it isn’t the best deal, the ability to have close to 200 countries, who rarely agree on anything, and even many oil companies and major corporations, feel it was a good enough deal, come to a compromise for the sake of the earth, was something that we would want to remain a part of. This is because because we can, we should, and we must continue do what we are already doing here in the US to help reduce our carbon footprint, but not recuse ourselves from the communal conversations.

So this morning, I want to reflect on why this decision is one that I don’t believe is in line with Jewish teaching and values, in that how it relates to the issue at hand, the environment.

Again, we can agree to disagree as to whether economically it was the best deal, but we learn from our Torah, that sometimes, economics isn’t the overriding factor, and looking out for the rising waters around us are, and it is for that reason that we need to take the first steps to freedom-in this case, would be reflected by a better environment.

What does Judaism say about the environment?

Let us begin at the beginning.

In parashat bereshit, as the world is created, we are taught that humanity is here to work the land and to guard it. What an incredible balance. Yes, we can work it. Yes we can take things from it. But we also must guard it.

In fact, Midrash Kohelet Rabbah teaches: When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” Kohelet Rabbah, 7:13

For anyone who has read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, we know what happens when the little boy just keeps taking and taking-all that remains in the stump of the tree.

So lesson#1 from our tradition is that we must not just take we must guard.

So how do we do that?  This is where lesson #2 comes in-we can’t just guard it for ourselves, we need to guard it for the future:

Once there was a wise man named Honi Ha-Me’agel. One day, he went for a walk, and as he was walking he saw an old man planting a tree. “Why would such an old man be planting a tree?” he thought. “It takes a long time for fruit trees to grow, and planting is hard work. He will not be around when the tree will give fruit.” And Honi said aloud, “Excuse me sir, but what kind of tree do you plant?” “A carob tree,” said the man. “In about seventy years, this tree will produce carob for eating.” “Do you think that you will live to be able to eat the fruit?” asked Honi. The man looked surprised. “Oh no! Just as my parents and grandparents planted trees for me, so too I plant trees for my children and grandchildren.” “That’s a very smart thing to do,” said Honi, and he continued his walk.

After a short while, he began to feel very tired. “I’ll just rest for a few moments,” he thought, as he sat down on the ground. “Maybe I’ll close my eyes for a while. I’ll eat my lunch when I wake up.” Honi stretched out on the ground, closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep. ….He slept on and on for a very long time, and he slept for seventy years!

Eventually, Honi woke up, and looked around. “I must have slept for a long time.” Honi noticed a man picking carob from a tree nearby. This man was not the one to whom Honi had spoken earlier. Honi stood up and walked over to the man. “Did you plant this tree?” he asked. “No,” answered the man. “My grandfather planted it seventy years ago.” “I can’t believe it,” Honi said to himself. “I must have been sleeping for seventy years!” “I will plant a carob tree also,” said the man. “See, I have a sapling ready for planting. Someday my grandchildren will be able to enjoy carob too.” Honi remembered the words of the old man. “Just as my parents and grandparents planted trees for me, so do I plant trees for my children and grandchildren.” (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet/Tractate Ta’anit 23a)

Two weeks ago as we were finishing the book of Leviticus, I reflected on the notion of a redeemed land. That every 50 years the land returns to its original owner, but deeper than that, the land always, in the end returns to God. That we are just sojourners on the earth and that we have an obligation to take care of it.

I don’t know what the best accord is but I do know that we need to not only focus on what is best for us, today, we need to, like Nahshon imagine what could be great, even in our wildest dreams. We need to have the vision to realize that when the flood waters are rising we need to confront them head on, we can’t assume that they won’t rise too much.

IN Leviticus rabbah we are taught the following:

A man in a boat began to drill a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. “What concern is it of yours?” he responded. “I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.” They replied: “That is so, but when the water comes in-it will sink the whole boat and we will all drown.” Leviticus Rabbah 4:1

And so you see, that is the third lesson-we will all be impacted in this globally connected world in which we live. We must engage with the world, not separate from it.

IN Pirke Avot, Ethics of our ancestors, our text of wisdom that is studied between Passover and Shavuot, we are remind, Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur-don’t separate from the community.

Nahshon was a successful leader because he was able to see the forest through the trees. Let us use his actions, and the teachings of our tradition, to hope, pray, and work for a way to be a part of the conversation about better choices for our land-because our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of their children, depend on it.

Shabbat shalom.