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Parashat Shemot by Karen Friedman Cooper

The word “leadership” is thrown around quite a lot. No doubt, right now, we all are painfully aware of how important it is that we have great leadership in our country. On the political scene, we hear an awful lot about what this is to look like.

When referencing our volunteer world, we hear remarks made in Federation corners like, “She is a great leader,” or “She should not be asked, she is not a strong leader.”

Personally, I have frequently struggled with leadership roles in my Federation work. I have been given numerous leadership positions that have left me feeling like a fish out of water. I’ve been sold on taking a portfolio, then before saying yes, I mull it over and ponder the eternal question, “What makes me think that I can possibly lead this group?!?”

I would love to say that this was my humility talking. It was more like biting fear.  But then someone or something appears, speaking to me in a “thattagirl!” kinda voice, that makes me pay attention to my personal aspirations of what can be.

In these moments, I try to knit together the gold threads of what has been created before me, before I entered the scene. Next I pray to G-d for strength and wisdom, and then there is a clear jumping-off point where I pay attention to the thoughts, feelings and sensitivities of the people I am so hungry to serve.

So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about a great leader?

Polls certainly seem to be the rage right now. Everyone is talking about how rankings in the polls relate to who is emerging as a strong leader. So, I recently took my own poll.

I posed the question: “What is the single most important trait of a leader?”

Here are answers I have received so far:

A leader is:

            Someone who listens.

            Someone who leads from behind.

            Someone who actualizes their vision.

            Someone who inspires with clear values.

The one that I love is: A leader is someone who has accurate empathy. They have the ability to feel others’ pain.

So, what is accurate empathy?

Empathy literally means “feeling into” so you can more fully understand a person. And, of course, “accurate” speaks to the fact that the one acting empathetically is selfless and is intentional about being all in as it pertains to someone else. Additionally, there is a match between understanding and genuinely intending to be there for the other.

I have personally experienced times with my children when they have shared an unsettling experience and I want to fix it to make it all better. I am sure you all understand what I mean.

Sometimes, I feel that I want to swoop in and spare them any pain by simply telling them what to do. In those times, when I feel their pain, I find that in actuality it is my pain, welling up and getting really loud. Really. Loud.

My pain takes over and becomes the thing that I am responding to, and in an effort to make my children feel better, I tap down their pain.

No. When I remind myself to engage in accurate empathy, I stop. I listen. Really listen to hear what their thoughts and feelings are. Listen to their pain (theirs, as in NOT MINE). And pay attention, so that I can correctly understand where they are with their experiences.

This week’s Torah portion is Shemot. In it, we learn of the birth of Moses. He grows up in the palace of Pharaoh, as a prince, number one in the eyes of Pharaoh and his daughter. By all accounts, he is living a very, very good life.

We also know that Moses was cared for by a wet nurse, who, according to midrash, might have been his real mother. And that she might have imbued her son with the values of the Hebrew people.

“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw…” (Exodus 2:11) Rabbi Doniel Wilner, with whom I study weekly, states that “Moses went out to his people” means the nation of the children of Jacob, and then “he put his eyes and his heart to feel their pain.” This is accurate empathy.

Many years go by. Moses has fled Egypt because someone witnessed his striking and killing of an Egyptian who struck a Hebrew man. He finds his way to Midian, where he marries and became a shepherd. While tending to his flock, G-d calls out to Moses from the burning bush, telling him, “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people that is in Egypt and I have heard its outcry because of its taskmasters, for I have known of its sufferings.” And during this profound exchange, G-d dispatches Moses “to Pharaoh, and you shall take My people, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (3:10)

Moses is thus charged with the task of leadership.

Understanding that he has now been dispatched to carry out the will of G-d, Moses realizes that he must leave Midian.

“So Moses went and returned to Jethro, his father-in-law, and said to him, ‘Let me now go back to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.’ And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go to peace.’” (4:18)

We see once again in this passage how Moses is empathizing with his people and cares deeply about them.

My sense is there would be no need to poll whether our teacher Moses was a great leader. I believe he was the greatest of all time.

As we approach the end of our secular year, we have another opportunity to reflect upon ourselves, our positive and negative traits, and where we need to place our emphases as we take our volunteer leadership roles to their highest level. What does it mean to be a leader in our Jewish community? And what does it mean to be in a leadership role on our National Women’s Philanthropy board?

I believe that it was Moses’s beautiful intention of empathy, which he displays time and time again, that paves the way for the freedom and the future of our Jewish People, and for the great leaders that are yet to come.

And in my little corner of the world, I will take time to reflect on how my next leadership role can be one of accurate empathy.

Shabbat shalom,


Karen Friedman Cooper
Seventh Year NWP Board Member


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