How Do We Raise Up a Leader?

Image: Large shoe, person trying to fill it. Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, via

Recently a colleague quoted a 3rd century text in the course of a discussion:

“A friend can be acquired only with great difficulty.” It is from a 3rd century collection of midrash on Deuteronomy, Sifre Devarim.  I’d heard of it but never studied it. I was curious about the context – what kind of friend? what sort of difficulty? How could I resist?

Normally when I want to look up a rabbinic text, I go to my bookshelf. I don’t own a copy of Sifre Devarim, so I went online. I found a translation of the text, even though I could not find a copy of the Hebrew text. (That will have to wait until I visit the HUC library later this summer.) Still, here is a translation of the line in context by Dr. Marty Jaffee of the University of Washington. Note that the word chaver may be translated both “friend” and “study partner:”

Then HASHEM said to Moses:

Take for yourself Joshua b. Nun, a man with spirit” (Nu.27:18)—

take for yourself a virile type, like yourself!

Take for yourself” (Nu.27:18)—

this phrase actually implies an act of seizure,

for a study partner can be acquired only with great difficulty.

On this basis they taught:

A person should acquire for himself a study partner—

to declaim Scripture with him,

to repeat oral traditions with him,

to eat and drink with him,

and to whom he can reveal his secrets.

And, so He says:

“Two are better than one” (Ecc.4:9), and

“A three-ply rope will not soon be severed” (Ecc.4:12).

– from Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305:1. Translation by Marty Jaffee.

So the rabbis of Sifre Devarim were asking themselves, “How did Moses train Joshua to be his successor?” Joshua needed to learn from Moses – how was that going to happen? The rabbis considered their own experiences with learning relationships. They may have been thinking about the critical problem of developing new leadership, and were looking to the life of Joshua to see how he grew into being the worthy successor to Moses.

Learning partnerships were very important to the rabbis. The word chaver that is usually translated “friend” in Modern Hebrew also meant “study partner” in Rabbinic Hebrew. We see in the texts that those were some of the most important relationships in their lives. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, about Honi the Circle Maker. Honi fell asleep for seventy years, and when he woke up, he discovered that his son was dead and so were all his old study partners. He died of grief. The story in Ta’anit ends thus:

Rava said, “That is what people mean when they say, ‘Either companionship or death.'”

A line in Dr. Jaffee’s translation immediately reminded me of another text, possibly the most famous text on the subject:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.  – Pirkei Avot 1:6

This text makes a distinction between mentors and friends, the same distinction we see in the Sifre Devarim text.

  • “Make for yourself a mentor [rav.]”  The verb here is l’aseh, to make or to do.We usually think of the mentor “making” the learner into something, but here the focus is on the learner. A person is a mentor or teacher because we choose to see that person in that way. If we are unwilling to learn from someone, it’s very hard for them to do much with us.
  • “Acquire for yourself a friend [chaver.]” This verb is liknot, to acquire. A man also acquires a bride as in Mishnah Kiddushin 1: “A woman is acquired in three ways and acquires herself in two ways.” While some modern readers focus on acquisition in the modern sense and think, “It’s like buying a cow!” as one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which one) pointed out, in this acquisition, the cow has to give her consent. Truly intimate relationships require mutual consent, be they marital or intellectual.
  • Take for yourself Joshua ben Nun.” (Numbers 27:18, quoted in Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305, above) The verb is lakakh, to take or seize.

Joshua needed mentoring, if he was to succeed Moses as leader. However, one cannot force another person to accept instruction from a mentor. One can learn from a mentor only by choosing to follow their lead. Therefore Moses needed to acquire Joshua as a chaver, a friend, so that they could learn together what God needed to convey.

The rabbis recognize, though, it is difficult to make a new friend. You don’t just march up and say, “We’re going to be friends” any more than you might walk up to another person and say “I’m going to marry you.” (You can try, but the other person may decide you are creepy and just run away!)

Moses certainly could have marched up to Joshua ben Nun and said, “Lookit, fellow, God says I am supposed to take you and make you into the next leader of Israel.” However, Joshua might easily have said, “No thanks,” especially after seeing how that role had worked out for Moses. The 3rd century rabbis saw that there was more to the Numbers 27 text than Moses walking up and saying “Tag, you’re It.”

While the message is rather subtle, I suspect that they were trying to figure out how to nurture good leaders without scaring them off or winding up with blowhards who wanted leadership for bad reasons.

Have you ever been mentored by someone? Have you ever been a mentor? Does this text seem to you to have something to say about mentoring for leadership – if so, what?


How to Make Friends at Synagogue

Some advice from the sages for making friends at synagogue:

Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance. – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

“Make your Torah study fixed” – As Woody Allen famously said, most of life is simply showing up. If you come every week to services, people will begin to recognize you. Opportunities for small talk will increase. If you only show up for High Holy Days or a yahrzeit,  don’t be surprised if you feel like a stranger!

“Say little and do much” – If you really want to make friends at synagogue, volunteer for something. My personal favorite is “clean up crew” after an event.  The people who always do it are anxious to have help, they will want to learn your name. Generally people chat while they are clearing away tables or folding chairs. By the end of 30 minutes, you are practically guaranteed to have the beginnings of at least one synagogue friend. Usually the work is not onerous, and the next week, there will be someone smiling in your direction.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful countenance” – When you make eye contact with someone at a synagogue event, what do you do? When you have a chance to exchange a few words, what do you talk about?

I am an inveterate greeter of newcomers, and I’m always a little surprised at the number of people who begin a conversation by complaining about something. I’ll say, “Hello, I am Rabbi Adar” and they’ll counter with something like, “Why don’t you have gluten free food?” or “The music here is not very good.” (Honest to goodness, people have said those things to me.) Others walk around scowling, and it takes a bit of nerve to walk up and say hello.

If you volunteer for the clean up crew, don’t grouse about it. Just get on with it, and make cheerful conversation as you do. If you would rather do anything than clean up after other people, take a class or volunteer for a task where you can put on a “cheerful countenance.” Grumbling about what pigs people are will not make friends for you.

It’s not easy to be new. However, it is a curable condition, if we take Shammai’s advice. Show up, volunteer, and be friendly, and before you know it, you’ll have a friend or two at shul.



Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.

Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.

Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.

And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)

Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.

Their Own Private Judaism

I used to work for a major Jewish organization, and part of my job was to answer questions that came in over the telephone. (Nowadays they use websites for that.) One of the strangest calls I ever received was from a woman who said:

“I’ve talked to three rabbis and I am very frustrated. You see, I was Jewish in a previous life. But these rabbis insist that I can’t be Jewish unless I convert! They don’t get it: I don’t need to convert!”

I could tell that she was 100% serious. She found it hugely insulting that those rabbis hadn’t taken her at her word. By the end of our conversation, she had decided that I was a horrible person too, because I would not point her to a rabbi who would agree with her that she was born Jewish.

She has stuck in my mind for fifteen years. What seemed perfectly reasonable to her was simply not going to fly with any rabbi I knew, then or now.

The reason is, no one gets to make up their own private Judaism. There are many different expressions of Judaism: Secular, Haredi, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and a thousand different shades of each of those. What there isn’t is private Judaism. A person can say something like “I was born Jewish in a previous life so I’m Jewish” but that will not persuade other Jews that they should agree.

Granted, the Jewish world is full of disagreements: we thrive on them. One group says one thing, another disagrees. We’ve been doing that as far back as Jacob’s children, and on every subject imaginable.

Once a person is a congregation of one, though, it’s another matter. A Jew all alone, insisting that something is “the true way” is in a bad place. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a learned and holy rabbi, who ruled differently from all the other rabbis about an oven. He insisted that he was right and all of them were wrong. Then he called nature and God to witness, and both affirmed that the law always went his way. The rabbis retorted that they’d outvoted him, and that “After the majority must one incline.” (Exodus 23:2.) Then a Heavenly Voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” Rabbi Eliezer is so upset by this, and by his isolation, that he brings disaster upon himself and upon the whole community. (Bava Metzia 59b)

It would have been better for the rabbis not to break Rabbi Eliezer’s heart. But it also would have been better had he not separated himself from the community. That separation – his insistence that he was right and all of them were wrong – was the impulse that set a tragedy in motion.

This is a teaching that is very uncomfortable for many of us American Jews, because we, like other Americans, are admirers of rugged individualism. In American mythology, there is nobility in being the lone voice whom everyone later realizes was right.

But that’s just not how Judaism works. We figure things out by comparing notes. We preserve minority opinions with care, but we are wary of lone opinions until and unless they stand the test of time. (Example:. Spinoza.)

Not every “private Judaism” question I get is as extreme as the “Jewish in a previous life” lady’s question. But it is always worth pondering, if a person asks  rabbi after rabbi and gets “no” for an answer, if perhaps what they want isn’t Jewish at all.

Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat?

“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.

TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.

SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.

RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.

So what is a couple to do?

1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.

2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!

3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.

Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”

I Love You, JTA!


How do you keep up with the news of the Jewish world?

Sometimes it can seem as if “the Jewish world” consists of my own little Jewish community plus whatever is in the news about Israel. In the summer of 2014, if you believed the television, the only things going on anywhere were war in Gaza and a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.

Granted, it was not a happy summer for Jews, but if you were tuned in to Jewish news sources, you (1) had a more complete picture of the bad things and (2) knew what other things were happening with Jews globally.

My favorite Jewish news source is The long form of its name will give you a clue how long it has been serving the community: Jewish Telegraphic Agency. One of the things I love about the JTA is the depth of its archive: they will give you the current story, then background on the issue.  For instance, today there is an article about the history of tension around the Temple Mount. Less savvy news services might give you the idea that trouble at the Temple Mount is a current development, but the JTA article gives you the background. Sometimes stories read a little differently when you know the history.

You can sign up for daily news from the service. Sometimes I only have time to skim that email, but it gives me the headlines for the Jewish world.

I know that is not the only source for Jewish news: do you have a favorite? Tell us about it in the comments!

Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

• IMPORTANT: Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that that amount will not fit into your budget. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for one, but I’ve been a member of a synagogue for twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call the rabbis; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.