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Naso 5783 - Isaiah's Ideal Spiritual Leader

June 2, 2023 - 14 Sivan, 5783

Right now, our Rabbinic Search Committee is working tirelessly to find a solution for the mess that I have created in leaving on such short notice. The committee is posting job descriptions, reviewing applications, and conducting interviews. Through it all, they are asking the big question - what is our community looking for in a spiritual leader? As I look back over the past four years, and as I look forward to whatever comes next, I ask myself - what am I striving for in my rabbinate? 

In describing our inevitable mashiah, Chapter 11 of Isaiah, part of our 929 reading for this week, offers us some examples of ideal leadership qualities:

The spirit of God shall alight upon him:

A spirit of wisdom and insight,

A spirit of counsel and might,

A spirit of knowledge and reverence for Adonai.

 

He shall sense by reverence for God

And he shall not judge by what his eyes behold

And he shall not decide by what his ears perceive

 

And he shall judge the poor with righteousness

And he shall decide with equity for the lowly of the land… (11:2-4)

For Isaiah, a spiritual leader should, first and foremost, be guided by reverence for God. If we extend Isaiah’s spiritual leadership to the realm of the synagogue, that leader’s job is to create an atmosphere that cultivates individual relationship with God, individual exploration of God’s mitzvot, and the communal care for one another embedded in those mitzvot. With every synagogue decision, whether it be ritual, financial, or structural, this spiritual leader must be guided by God first. 

With “wisdom and insight” a spiritual leader must have active experience in congregational life, knowledge of Jewish text, and the creativity to shape that wisdom and insight into the congregation’s needs. With “counsel,” that new leader is emotionally available for pastoral care and the most sensitive life cycle events. With “might,” she knows when to use her social capital, stand her ground, and fight for the halakhic and institutional decisions she knows are right. With “a spirit of knowledge,” she strives to learn more, soaking in new texts, studying with congregants, and admitting when she is wrong or does not know the answer.

Rather than judging by the first impressions of hearing and seeing, she recognizes that every person is more than she first appears. She delights in learning more about each individual, does not believe rumors at their first telling, and listens to all sides of an argument with patience and curiosity. She knows that each person has her own unique challenges and tries to walk in their shoes when understanding what that person needs. And of course, she extends compassion to the wider community, encouraging and perhaps even organizing social action projects. She, then, “judges the poor with righteousness and decides with equity for the lowly of the land.” 

Most likely, no spiritual leader today will live up to Isaiah’s vision of mashiah. No human being is perfect, even a Jewish professional. In our particular case, we have a limited timeframe in which to hire a new rabbi, cantor, or Jewish educator. And yet, when seeking a new spiritual leader, we must keep our ideals at the forefront of our minds. While we can certainly use Isaiah’s wisdom, insight, counsel, might, knowledge, reverence, justice, and equity as initial guidelines, I would imagine that those present in this room have other items to add to the list of ideal rabbinic qualities. Perhaps you’re looking for a spiritual leader with a beautiful voice, someone comfortable with technology, or someone who writes particularly inspirational divrei Torah. Regardless of Agudath Achim’s specific list of ideals, finding someone who comes pretty close to that list can be possible, even if it means adjusting the traditional structure of a full-time rabbinic position.

Please, share your ideal qualities in a rabbinic candidate with the search committee. Share what you appreciated about the service of previous rabbis and what you did not care for as much. Remember that timing and finances are only two small factors when considering a new spiritual leader; you have the opportunity to choose someone who will truly support and challenge you in your relationship with God, both personally and communally. 

I feel truly blessed to have served in a congregation that has pushed me to consider my ideal rabbinic goals and qualities. In the past four years, I have felt endlessly supported in my attempts to start achieving them.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784