Sunday, March 4, 2018

Parashat Ki Tissa: Sensitivity

A Message for Parashat Ki Tissa 2018
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As Moshe and Yehoshua walked together to the scene of het ha-egel, the cries of the nation rang out from a distance. Yehoshua exclaimed, “A sound of war in the camp!” But Moshe corrected him: “Not the sound of crying out in triumph, and not the sound of crying out in defeat. A sound of crying out I hear” (Shemot 32:18-19). Imagining the full effect of Moshe’s reaction at that time, the Hakhamim retold: “Moshe said: ‘Yehoshua, a person who will in the future lead six hundred thousand people doesn’t know how to distinguish between one sound and another?’”[1] The Rabbis clearly understood that this ability to “distinguish between sounds” was a vital quality of leadership, but they never explained why. How was this trait related to the proper guidance of Am Yisrael?

R. Yehuda Amital z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion would often describe the unique character of his students' involvement even beyond the walls of the beit midrash by means of a Hasidic story. R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi –  the “Alter Rebbe” and founder of Habad – and his grandson, R. Menahem Mendel – the “Semah Sedek” – once sat studying Torah in a three-room house. The Alter Rebbe sat in the inner room, while the Semah Sedek was in the middle, and his baby slept in the outer room. The baby began to cry, but the Semah Sedek was so immersed in his studies that he did not hear it. The Alter Rebbe, however, heard the baby and quickly ran to soothe it. As he returned to his place in the inner room, he reprimanded his grandson: “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the crying of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”[2]

I believe that although Yehoshua did hear the cries of the people at that time, his failure to understand them was similar to the Semah Sedek’s mistake. Each of them lacked sensitivity. Moshe was teaching Yehoshua that his inability to decipher the nation’s shouts signified a disconnect. The ears of a sensitive leader can hear beyond the muffled calls of his people – he can understand why they are crying, as well.

In his best-selling book Principles, billionaire Ray Dalio listed many of the recurring lessons that he has encountered in his climb to success as an investor and hedge fund manager. One of his core principles is to “remember that the who is more important than the what.” He explained that potential visionaries sometimes fail at their projects by mistakenly focusing on what they want accomplished, and overlooking who will accomplish it best. He wrote: “Not knowing what is required to do the job well and not knowing what your people are like is like trying to run a machine without knowing how its park work together.”[3] The success or failure at “being in sync” with your team will oftentimes dictate the successive results of the project. This was, in a sense, Moshe’s message to Yehoshua at that time: he taught him that leading a nation entails more than tactical planning and perceiving vision – it requires understanding the people.

Moshe’s words to Yehoshua extend further than the realm of national leadership and project management. They affect our vital roles as friends, spouses and parents, as well. They teach the essential lesson of sensitivity. Shared dreams can only carry our relationships as far as we can hear and understand each other’s cries.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[2] As retold in Elyashiv Reichner’s By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (New Milford, CT, 2011), pg. 23.
[3] Ray Dalio, Principles (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 400.