Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Exodus 40 describes Moses as personally doing all the last minute, pre-dedication Mishkan preparations – hammering, lifting, furniture moving, etc. Had the “the humblest of all men” turned into a megalomaniac, a micro-manager, a control freak, a perfectionist? Perhaps a contemporary New Jersey synagogue move can help us lean from Moses’ actions still valid lessons about leadership.
Leaders Like Moses – Wanted/Needed?
There is a nuance in this week’s Torah portion which, I confess, I had really never paid much attention to before. The writings of Rabbi Jack Riemer brought it to my attention. Listen to Exodus Chapter 40, which is the last chapter of the Book of Exodus. For five weeks now, our Torah has been concerned with the building of Israel’s very first sanctuary. It is now ready.
We’ve been told more details of this construction project than even the most dedicated architect wants to know. Then we’ve been given the details of how much each item cost, more than any accountant wants to know. Finally, almost at the end, Torah says: “MOSES set up the Tabernacle. HE placed the sockets. HE set up the planks. HE inserted its bars. HE erected the posts. HE spread the tent over the Tabernacle. HE placed the covering of the tent on top of it as God had commanded MOSES to do.”
Then in the very next verse, it says: “HE took the pact and placed it inside the ark. HE fixed the poles to the ark. HE placed the cover on top of the ark. HE brought the ark inside the Tabernacle, then HE put up the curtain for screening, and HE screened off the ark of the pact as God had commanded MOSES to do.”
The Torah continues: “HE placed the table in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain on the north side of the Tabernacle. Upon it HE laid out the setting of bread before the Eternal. HE placed the lampstand in the Tent of Meeting opposite the table on the south side. HE placed the altar of gold in the Tent of Meeting before the curtain. On it HE burned aromatic incense.
We continue, verse 28: “Then HE put up the screen for the entrance of the Tabernacle. At the entrance of the Tabernacle HE placed the altar of burnt offering. On it, HE offered up the burnt offering and the grain offering. HE placed the laver between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and HE put water into it for washing. And HE set up the enclosure around the Tabernacle and the altar, and HE put up the screen for the gate of the enclosure.”
Verse 33: “ When MOSES finished his work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle.”
Friends, did you notice how many times the word “MOSES” and “HE” appeared in these sentences? It sounds as if Moses did everything all by himself, as if Bezalel and Oholiab and the craftsmen and the skilled workers and the people did nothing. It is as if Moses single-handedly erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, our people’s first sanctuary.
What is going on here? Moses, who is described by the Torah as “the humblest of all men” suddenly became a megalomaniac and insisted on doing everything himself so that he would get all the credit? That does not seem possible, does it?
This is the same Moses who a few weeks ago, you remember, accepted the advice of his father-in-law Jethro to delegate the work of judging people and appointed 70 assistants – now he felt the urge to do everything by himself? Did he regress? That makes no sense. So why do we suddenly see Moses doing everything by himself in the closing hours of the completion of the Mishkan?
If you share my view that human nature hasn’t changed significantly over time, then a contemporary experience may shed on Exodus 40. Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Shalom, formerly of Plainfield and now of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, explained this passage in a way that was very helpful to me. Rabbi Abraham tells the story of what happened in his own congregation.
For many years, the congregation existed happily in Plainfield, New Jersey. Then demography changed, and the congregation had to move. It sold its building in Plainfield and built a new one in Scotch Plains. But it took some time between when they sold their old building and the time when their new building was ready. So during this interim, they rented space in a nearby church.
Each week, they had to bring in their ark, set up the bima, hang up the curtains, and change the room which they had rented from a church into a synagogue. This use of the rented church space began in the summer when many of the members were away, services were a bit more informal, and people did not mind so much davening in a rented space – frankly, in a church. But as the High Holydays approached, the leadership began worrying about what would their members think and how would they feel about having Holyday services in foreign territory, alien space.
The Rabbi, the Chairman of the Building Committee, and some of the synagogue leaders spent many hours trying to figure out how to make this foreign space feel comfortable to Jews on their holiest days of the year. One of the volunteers was an artist, and he came up with the idea of a curtain on which he did a rendition of the synagogue’s old stained glass windows which they put up to cover the cross.
In the final hours before the Rosh Hashanah evening service, when most of the congregants were at home enjoying their family meal, the Rabbi found himself pulling at curtains, straightening out cloths, re-arranging flowers, and attending to a million other such last-minute details. He says he knew that he could have delegated others to do these things. But somehow he felt the need to do them himself, because he understood that the first impression his people would receive when they entered this makeshift sanctuary was crucial – and he wanted it to be just right.
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Abraham suggests, “Moses may have felt exactly the same way. At first he may have been content to let Bezalel and Oholiab and the others do their jobs, but when the opening hour came near, when he felt the tension of knowing that soon the people were going to enter the sanctuary and see it in all its glory for the very first time, Moses felt the need to roll-up his sleeves and make sure it was done just right. So Moses placed the sockets, and Moses arranged the planks, and Moses set the tables, and Moses lit the lamps, and Moses prepared the incense.”
Rabbi Abraham says he knows he is no Moses, but he has a hunch that what he was feeling in the minutes just before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah that year may have been a bit akin to what Moses felt on the day that the sanctuary was dedicated. When you are caught up in the cause, when it really, really means a lot to you, then no matter how many talented assistants you have, no matter how many manual laborers you may hire, no matter how many enthusiastic people are on your committee – when the final moments of the project draw near, something inside you pulls at you and drives you to make sure that you get it right. Something makes you do it yourself so that you can be sure that it will done according to your specifications and standards.
Therefore, friends, I want to say a kind word tonight on behalf of a term which has crept into our language and is often used as an insult. If you want to say about a leader that he’s too driven, too possessed, you say he is a “micro-manager,” and that word is usually not meant as a compliment. It means that this is a person who does not know how to let go and who does not know how to share, who has to do it all by herself, and who has to make sure that every detail is done the way he wants it to be done.
Well, you know something? To be a micro-manager is not such a bad thing. I understand that it is difficult, truly challenging to work for someone who has to keep control over every facet of the job. I recognize that it can be frustrating to have a boss who worries about every single detail himself and cannot let those who work for her have the discretion to make some decisions by themselves. I really do understand all that.
But I also understand, and I admire, the kind of devotion to detail that makes a leader want to make sure that each and every part of the task goes right. And there is something to be said about the kind of leader who is willing to roll up his sleeves and do a lot of the job himself.
I don’t know if Moses was a “perfectionist” – another word not always used as a compliment. Maybe Moses was, maybe not. But I do think that Moses had enthusiasm, enormous passion. He was a man who wanted the Mishkan to come our really, really right and therefore, at the end, he pitched in and got his hands dirty and did much of the manual labor himself.
And you know what I think must have happened as a result? My guess is that when the craftsmen – the carpenters, the furniture makers, the table polishers – and all the rest of the workmen saw Moses working like that, they must have said to themselves “if he can do this, then so can we.” And they must have worked extra hard to get every detail right in the closing hours and minutes before the sanctuary was finished.
Rabbi Abraham says that when the doors of the temporary, makeshift synagogue which they had created in a church were opened that first night of Yontif and the people streamed in, they paused and you could hear them catch their breath as they beheld the replica of the stained glass windows of their old synagogue on the white curtain before them. When they saw the silk paintings which had adorned the old bima in this room, and when they saw the same holy ark which they were used to seeing in their old shul now on the bima in this space, he says he could hear them saying to themselves “ah, this feels right. I can worship here.”
And even though his hands were filthy from all the manual labor he had done that day, and even though he had a backache from all that he had done, and even though he felt bone-tired, Rabbi Abraham thought to himself as he washed up and took his place on the bima and began the service – – “it was worth it. I’m glad I did it.”
Rabbi Abraham’s experience in New Jersey helps explain this unusual passage at the very end of the Book of Exodus. It helped me understand why Moses is described in these last words of the Mishkan dedication as running frantically from one corner to the other, from one task to the other. He did all the last minute work – the hammering and the lifting and the placing of the furniture and the fixing of the sockets – not because he was a megalomaniac who had to do it all himself. He did it because he wanted things to be just right.
And the second thing that I think we can learn is – Moses did it in order to teach all who would be leaders of the Jewish People that there are times to stand or sit on your dignity. There are times when it is appropriate to give orders and direct other people what to do. But there are times when, if you are the Rabbi or the President or the Chair of a Facilities Committee or of the donor dinner or of the art auction or some other important project, you must pitch in and do whatever has to be done in order to make sure the project is done as well as it can be done.
I don’t believe Moses was a perfectionist or a control freak. But Moses was a person who had planned meticulously and worked hard for many, many months to build the Mishkan and then, when the final minutes approached before it was to open, he pitched-in hands-on in order to make sure that it would be really ready when the doors swung open.
May we who are leaders, whether it be in the Temple or in our businesses, in our clubs or in our homes, learn from Moses to love our tasks so much that we want them to be done really, really well. And may his example teach us to be willing to roll-up our sleeves and pitch-in and do whatever needs to be done in order to make sure that that happens.
In the sports world, there is a saying “the pace of the leader is the pace of the game.” And they say in the Army “a leader’s task is not to say ‘go do it’ but to say ‘follow me’.” Or, as it says in this week’s Torah reading “Va-yakem Moshe et hamishkan – Moses, set up the Tabernacle.” (40:18)
The world has enough eitse gibbers – enough advisors who sit on the sidelines and offer free criticism. They are called “sidewalk superintendents”, unpaid and often unwanted advisors. There are plenty of them, in fact, an over-abundance. Rather let us be leaders like Moses who are willing to get our hands dirty and who are willing to work hard so that the tabernacles of our time may be established. Amen
— I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for this message.