Passover is upon us, and the custom to put ourselves in the ancient Israelites’ shoes, and perceive ourselves as if we have emerged from Egypt. It is a time of year for reflection – what are our Egypts, our narrow places, keeping us trapped in harmful patterns? What is preventing us from being free, from making the necessary changes that will enable us to transition from where we are to the place we want to be?
When Moses is charged with the task of standing before Pharaoh and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he demurs, stating “the people won’t believe me, and won’t listen to me” (Exodus 4:1) He goes on to say that he is not a man of words, that he is heavy of mouth and tongue, that he’s not the guy for the job. (Those who want to get out of a challenging situation, take notes; this is a guy who argues down God). His reluctance is understandable. Leading a radical change process is daunting. Moving people from one way of being, a familiar way of functioning, to a radically different way of thinking and living, is terrifying. Standing before a Pharaoh, before the source of power, before the one who symbolizes a certain mindset and way of doing things, and attempting to shift his thinking, to change that mindset, can seem nearly impossible. It is no wonder Moses is heavy of mouth, heavy of tongue. Who wouldn’t be?
Though we often think of Moses at the helm, leading the people into freedom, the success of the Exodus campaign actually depended on an intricate collaboration, primarily between Moses and his brother Aaron. Moses ultimately agrees to play a leadership role in this process only when God charges Aaron with co-leading the initiative. The text even refers to them in a singular pronoun – “he is Aharon and Moses, whom God told to bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 6:26). Moses, who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and was in the unique position of being an insider into the Egyptian psyche, lacked the experience and perspective of the Israelite slaves. Aaron had that perspective, but he would have been putty in the palace without his brother. The collaboration between these two individuals with radically different experiences and viewpoints was critical for the success of the transition out of Egypt.
Successful change initiatives depend upon collaborations. Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, writes:
Leadership cannot be exercised alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. Each of us has blind spots that require the vision of others. Each of us has passions that need to be contained by others.
The success of any venture depends not only upon partnerships, but specifically upon partnerships with those who think differently from us, and who have the skills and strengths that we lack.
Our attempts to make lasting, successful changes in our community and in the world will depend upon our ability to partner, especially with those who challenge us. In order for us to ensure that our community continues to grow and change, in order to stay vibrant and healthy, innovators need to partner with the establishment, funders with practitioners, staffs with boards, senior staff with junior staff. This time of year in the Jewish calendar encourages us to think about our overarching shared values, and challenges us to work together towards achieving them. Let’s learn how to better come together, towards free.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.