Leadership Lessons in Trying Times

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the man and the element
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By Rabbi Daniel Levitt

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week’s double Torah portion of Vayakhel and Pekudei contains, for the most part, a review of all of the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle in the desert.

Additionally, it introduces us to the manager of the entire project, a man by the name of Betzalel. A careful look at the qualities that make Betzalel the appropriate leader for this project can also shed light on how to evaluate the leadership qualities and personality traits for us to value in ourselves to help us through the trying uncertain times that we are facing.

A midrash describes the manner in which God chose Betzalel (Talmud Berachot 55a): “The Lord said to Moses: Moses, is Betzalel a suitable appointment in your eyes? Moses said to Him: Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion. Moses went and said to Israel: Is Betzalel suitable in your eyes? They said to him: If he is suitable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in your eyes, all the more so he is suitable in our eyes.”

If all this midrash was coming to teach us was that God recommends we make sure that a candidate for leader is an acceptable choice for the people, then we wouldn’t need the whole back and forth between God, Moses and the people. Commenting on this midrash, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains that each step in the conversation represents a different level of leadership quality.

First, he explains, a leader must have integrity and purity of soul, or a selfless motivation. This level of personality is an inner experience. It can only be known if someone has mastered these qualities to that person or to God. We can assume that God has chosen Betzalel because he recognized these qualities in him.

The second level of leadership qualities are for a person to have wisdom, good judgment and political acumen. While not everyone will be able to discern whether another person has these qualities, other intelligent people with good judgment are able to ascertain this in others. That is why God asks Moses at this point whether on his level he approves of Betzalel.

Finally, the last and most obvious level of qualities that a good leader must possess are the things that are obvious to all, which is why it is learned through Moses asking all the people their opinion. These qualities are the external talents such as eloquence and charisma.

The lesson in Rabbi Kook’s explanation of the midrash above goes beyond the way in which leaders are chosen and judged. I believe it is a tool for personal development, and when a person is acting with all three levels of qualities, they will have the tools to endure any challenges life throws at them.

When faced with challenges in trying times, we should evaluate with integrity and honesty our emotional state and be able to be honest with ourselves about what is happening in our own emotional world. Once we have a calmly ascertained where we are emotionally and identified the information we need to make sound decisions, the next level is for us to utilize our good judgment for how to respond, behave, and make decisions.

Lastly, once we have confidently made decisions for how to make decisions in these trying times, we can then act with confidence, radiate positivity for the people in our surrounding orbit.

During these times I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

May we all be blessed to benefit from the leadership lessons of Betzalel so that we can find ways to feel serenity even during the uncertain days ahead. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Rosen Center. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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