The Most Unlikely Leader: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Shemot 5776

January 1, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

There is a story.

In an effort to improve their challenging personal relationship, President Barack Obama is talking on the phone to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, leader to leader, and they are comparing notes.  President Obama is explaining patiently that he has the more difficult job, since not only is he the leader of the most important country in the entire world, but the scale of things is completely different: while Israel is a small nation, he, President Obama, is the president of 330 million people.  But Prime Minister Netanyahu replies that actually he has the more difficult job: “You are the president of 330 million citizens; but I am the president of 7 million presidents!”

I believe that joke was first told about Harry Truman and David Ben Gurion…  But though old, it establishes an important aspect of Jewish leadership, and one that has great relevance this week.

This Shabbat we read the great Torah portion of Shemot, the first in the book of Exodus, and early on we are introduced to the single most important leader in the history of our people—indeed, in the history of Western Civilization.  Moses will become the great liberator of the Israelites, and the model for nearly every liberation movement ever after, and he will also emerge as the lawgiver who transmits God’s great code of ethics, morality, and ritual into a system that still forms the basis of all monotheistic belief and practice, not to mention the foundation of civilized law everywhere.  And of course he is the one who helps forge a lost, polyglot group of slaves into a nation.  Surely he can give us great lessons in what it takes to be a leader.

And yet the more you study Moses’s career, the more you explore his character and methodology, the more you wonder how this ever came to be.  For Moses’ greatness, while indisputable, is completely unpredictable based on any reasonable process for choosing or training a leader.  In fact, you can make a case that Moses’s birth, early rearing, adolescence, and most of his adulthood should have led to a life of dubious importance and nearly no real value.  

Moses is born early on in Shemot, and his character development over this week’s parshah you would think would provide a wonderful instructional guide to the growth and evolution of a leader.  If this is our greatest figure, shouldn’t we be able to learn from his life how to create great leaders?  Shouldn’t Shemot serve as a primer for a best-selling business book “Moses on Management” or “How to Raise a Heroic Child?”

But here are the simple facts of his life:  Moses, the third child of slave parents, is born in the midst of an attempted genocide being perpetrated against all Israelite boys.  His mother hides him, no doubt shushing him constantly, until he is too loud to keep secret anymore.  He is then sneakily abandoned in a little ark, saved from drowning or exposure or being eaten by crocodiles by the daughter of the king, who names him and then immediately hands him off to a wet nurse—actually, back to his slave mom who had dumped him in the first place.  When he reaches adolescence he is suddenly brought to the Pharaoh’s palace and taught the basics of Egyptian court conduct, which he apparently never really grasps.  One day he sees a slave being beaten, a legal act, and instinctively reacts by killing the taskmaster, a kind of Egyptian cop.  He then tries to bury his homicide victim in the sand.  This is illegal even for a prince, and when he sees Israelites fighting each other the next day and tries to stop them they make it clear that his murderous deed is known.

Next, he becomes a fugitive from justice, running away to the desert of Midian in the Sinai.  Again, he becomes involved in an altercation, and fights with some shepherds.   This time, he picks the right side, and is brought into the non-Israelite household of a Midianite priest.  He settles down with a pretty wild woman there, marries, has two kids, and is working for his father-in-law as a humble shepherd in that empty, barren, meaningless corner of the world.  

Not much of a CV for a future world leader.  Abandoned by his real parents, a manslayer, a wanted fugitive from justice, employed in one of the most obscure places in one of the lowest occupations the ancient world offered.  No prominent family, no prep schools, no excellent grades, no internships, no National Merit Scholarships, no Ivy League colleges, no law schools or MBA’s, no Harvard Law Review, no fellowships.  Not much of anything good, to be honest, to recommend him.

Oh, and I forgot one basic fact: he was a very poor speaker, either a stutterer or a one who slurred his words badly.

And yet this is the guy who God chooses to lead our people from slavery to freedom, from doubt and darkness to revelation and holiness.  This is the one whom the Almighty decides will forge our nation and bring us to the entrance of the Promised Land. 

In fact, the choice is so bizarre, so profoundly unlikely that when God speaks to Moses from that famous Burning Bush and tells him that he will lead the campaign to Let My People Go, Moses himself can’t believe it.  In fact, he argues vigorously that God is making a huge mistake, and that the Lord should choose someone else—anyone else, in fact.

By the way, Moses’ ability to lead is so rudimentary that even after the Exodus, when he has led the greatest liberation in human history to that point, he insists on judging every single law case himself.  He has not yet discovered the concept of delegation…  you can see the next three books of the Torah as a kind of casebook of Moses’s learning how to do the job God has given him, and still struggling with it to the end of his life…

So what was God thinking here?  Why choose a black-sheep troublemaker like Moses when there had to be better bred, more skilled, more obvious and prominent candidates for leadership?

The answer lies in the fact that Moses was chosen to lead the Jewish people… and that is perhaps a different kind of task, requiring different skills, than the leadership of any other group.  What ultimately matters in Jewish leadership is not the same thing that matters in other kids of leadership.  And until we understand that crucial fact we will never understand the genius that God demonstrated in picking Moses.

You see, there are certain inherent qualities to the Jewish people that are quite crucial to our survival—but they can also make it extremely difficult to lead them.  From Moses’s time our people has been argumentative, fractious, stiff-necked.   If you tell a group of Jews how to do something, they will very likely tell you how to do it better, or at least differently.  Where most groups of people tend to go along with the majority and seek to avoid conflict, we Jews often seem to seek it out, and always have second, third, and fourth opinions.  Lest you think this is a stereotype imposed upon us by anti-Semitic outsiders, know that the Talmud itself, 1600 years old, says that (Baba Metziah 25b) “we are the most opinionated, aggressive of people.”  No less an authority than the great Maharal of Prague said, “…being stiff-necked is one of the bad qualities that Jews have.  Practically speaking, that means that Jews refuse to accept criticism and will not listen to corrective advise.”

Of course, we know the stereotype of two Jews, three opinions, and four synagogues…  but there is more here than that.  For leadership of strong, self-motivated, energetic, committed people requires singular qualities.  And Moses, in his odd path to the top, demonstrates all of them.

First, in order to lead Jews, a certain core integrity is essential.  Moses may not always show the best judgment, or present the calmest front in times of crisis.  But throughout Shemot, and then on through his entire career, he remains true to his central values.  He trusts in God.  He knows right from wrong.  When he sees injustice or persecution he acts.  Moses has integrity and he never loses it.  He knew what his mission was, and he stuck to it, in spite of non-stop setbacks.  Most of Moses’ life was filled with failure: he fled his own country as a fugitive, became a humble shepherd in the desert, and was initially rejected by his own people.  The reason that ten plagues were visited upon Egypt was because Moses’ initial efforts at liberation all failed, at least 10 different times.  And throughout his 40+ year tenure as leader of the Israelites, Moses’ judgment was unceasingly questioned publicly by nearly everyone he was supposed to be commanding.  He even had to talk his own superior, God, down from destroying the people on a variety of occasions.  That’s a really, really tough position to be in.  And yet he persisted in his course, overcame deep adversity, and ultimately triumphed.  Integrity, faith, and commitment.  Key qualities in a leader.

Second, to be a Jewish leader, you need passion.  We have always been a passionate people: passionate about everything, in fact, from food to music to religion to justice to rights to nationalism.  We are not always right, but we are always passionate.  To lead such a group you must care deeply, and have the energy and the spirit to demonstrate that passion. Moses has a terrible temper, he is often outraged, and sometimes he is even fierce.  But his passion must be respected.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, to become a successful Jewish leader, you must have goals, and continue to seek to achieve them no matter the odds and no matter the obstacles.  It takes 10 plagues to free the Israelites, a great crossing of an impassable sea to reach freedom, and an incredible covenant of fire and smoke and drama at Mt. Sinai to become a people; and then it took 40 more years to get to the Promised Land.  To lead Jews takes commitment, and patience, and the ability to keep your eye on the real goals, without being distracted and dissuaded by the temporary set-backs.  What was it Ben Gurion said?  In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.  Jewish leadership, in its essence, is the ability to pragmatically work to create what seem like miracles…

And fourth, leading Jews takes having the ability to grow and change, without abandoning your integrity, losing your passion, or forsaking your goals.  In the course of our Torah portion, and certainly throughout the rest of the Torah, Moses learns management.  He delegates, he becomes an orator, he learns to organize groups, he learns how to motivate this complicated, difficult people.  He never stops arguing, of course, even with God, especially with God, because he knows that what matters most is accomplishing what is right and good and holy.

Later, he even makes some compromises in the interests of peace… small compromises, mind you.  Because the essence of Moses’s leadership is not compromise. It is integrity, passion, and being goal-oriented. 

And isn’t that still the formula for true leadership?

And finally, Moses was very a reluctant chief executive.  As the Torah describes in detail Moses was chosen by God to redeem the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but he, himself, had no desire for the job.  He understood the magnitude of the responsibility, and in the burning bush episode he repeatedly objected to being selected for the task. 

All of this is relevant for us as well.  Historically, American presidents were also officially reluctant to be chosen, and as recently as the end of the 19th century actively campaigning for the job was considered tawdry and inappropriate.  That reticence has long disappeared from our national scene, of course, but a little consciousness of the humility that Moses showed would go a long way towards humanizing the folks running for president today.  Moses was no Donald Trump… or even Hillary Clinton.  He took on the responsibility, rather than glorying in the power and celebrity. 

It’s the beginning of a new secular year, 2016, the year in which we will elect a new American president.  We can learn a great deal from Moses about the kind of person we choose to be our new leader. 

May we find inspiration in Moses story, and in his circuitous path to leadership.  And perhaps, if we are fortunate, we will be able to select a leader for own nation who shares his greatest qualities…

May this be God’s will.  And ours.

Light in Dark Times: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Mikets 5776

December 11, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Once there was a Chasid who was afraid of the dark.  “Tell me, Rabbi,” the Chasid asked,  “How can I chase the darkness from the world?”

So the Rebbe sent the Chasid into the deep darkness of the shul’s basement.  Handing him a broom he said, “Go sweep the darkness out of the basement.” 

Read more: Light in Dark Times: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Mikets 5776

Ordinary Miracles: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayishlach 5776

November 6, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Thank you all for being here on this Shabbat.  I'd like to thank Marjorie Hochberg for singing tonight, and Chris Tackett our accompanist for doing a beautiful job on the service.  I’d like to thank Beth Horowitz for her drash.  I'd like to thank each and every one of you who are present.  I’m grateful to be on the bimah tonight, and I am most grateful to be the rabbi of this congregation.  I can't tell you what it means to me to be here.  You are too kind to listen to me offer this sermon.  By golly, thanks!  No really, thanks a lot.  Is there anyone I've forgotten to thank?  Wouldn't want to do that.  Oh, and I'd like to thank my mom and dad, for without them I wouldn't be here.  And I'd like to thank the Academy for this great honor...

Read more: Ordinary Miracles: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayishlach 5776

The Resilience of Abraham: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Chayei Sarah 5776

November 6, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

I have just returned—literally so; I landed an hour ago—from the Reform movement URJ Biennial in Florida this week.  While a number of speakers and events are still to come there, including celebrating Shabbat with 5000 other Reform Jews under one large roof and hearing from Vice President Joe Biden, I had some wonderful experiences the last few days that are well worth sharing tonight with you.

Read more: The Resilience of Abraham: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Chayei Sarah 5776

Religion and Peace: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Lech Lecha 5776

October 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

An old Jewish man is taking a walk in the desert. He comes across a banged up old lantern, the kind Aladdin would have played with.  As he rubs off some of the dust, lo and behold, a Genie appears!  The Genie asks the man for his favorite wish. Thinking a bit, the man says, "I used to live in Chicago and I still love the Cubs. They just lost in the league championship series.  I want that the Cubs should win the pennant and the World Series next year."

The Genie shakes his head and begs the man to reconsider his wish.  "The Cubs? They haven't won the World Series in 107 years. Can't you ask me to fulfill a wish that’s a bit easier?”

The old man takes a minute to think, and then he says with a smile, "Ok, how about making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?"

The Genie strokes his beard slowly and responds, "Would you like the Cubs to win in seven, or do you insist on a four game sweep?"

My apologies to all Cubs fans present tonight…  Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…

Read more: Religion and Peace: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Lech Lecha 5776