The Project of Leadership

Most people find this section (the final chapters of Exodus and first few chapters of Leviticus) of the Torah pretty boring . There’s weeks of details of stuff, of laws, meandering for days through minutiae of the mishkan (tabernacle) and the sacrificial cult. But this year, what all those minute details have reminded me most of, is the hammer-and-tongs exchanges that I see among friends, colleagues, acquaintances and in the public discourse over the electoral season.

The parallels are loose, I grant you. But the debate that we are having in this country over who will be the next president is in some ways every bit as arcane as the details of golden sockets and priestly linen uniforms. Because what we are really arguing over is the feasibility of dreams.

On both sides of the aisle, people who feel disempowered and cheated, who feel a yearning for a future that seems to get ever farther away, security that is more and more difficult to achieve and a sense of loss for a unified nation, are trying to find a way to a leader who can return those things to us.

And on both sides of the aisle, people are choosing different ways to turn for this hope: leaders who speak in generalities, of vision, and hope, on one hand, or candidates who speak more of practicality, whose picture of the future is one of small, incremental change. Leaders who promise only to be excellent administrators.

It’s no surprise then, that the broad vision and great promises seem to be surging in popularity. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s in any way realistic. Dreams are important, but when we turn to governance, don’t we need the instruction about setting the table up and putting the candlesticks on top of it and lighting them, and put the laver between the Tent and the altar and don’t forget to put water in it?

I offer no answers here. Without vision, there can be no progress. But without practical instruction and competent administration, there also can be no progress. Where is the balance between what we want, and what is necessary? How do we change a country for the better? What is the best road to improvement? Does revolution ever really work?

There are other times in the Torah, when the answer is clearly: Dream big! Dare to leave Egypt! We’re going on an adventure to Sinai! Have faith!

But we spend a great deal of Torah-time sitting with the manual from IKEA, and a big bag of allen wrenches, hoping that when we’re done, the entire project won’t collapse around us.



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