What do Moses and Nobel prize winner in chemistry Daniel Shechtman have in common?
No, this isn’t a joke, although it’s a bit of brain teaser which a dear friend recently related to me after hearing a Shabbat morning sermon in Haifa. Delivered by Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, noted Talmudic scholar, mathematician and former Israeli Minister of Science and Technology, the answer came in the form of a question.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. In a nutshell, Moses, while tending to his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, came upon a strange and inconceivable sight – a burning bush which was not consumed by its fire. This sight so “ignited” his curiosity that he stopped to investigate, and ultimately came to encounter his first prophetic vision of God. Exodus 3:3 informs us that Moses, in stumbling upon the unusual, asked the question, “Why will this bush not be burned?”
Daniel Shechtman identified quasicrystals, a crystalline structure not previously thought to exist in nature, which upon discovery was viewed as a scientific revolution. Shechtman, like Moses, saw something that others did not see – and his curiosity led him to ask the same question: Why?
At a time in our country when we face great divisiveness, where leadership is both challenging and challenged, it is instructive and inspirational to look at leadership paradigms through the lens offered by our sacred Jewish texts.
Moses teaches us that the ability to stop and delve deeply into things about which we don’t know or understand is an essential quality of leadership. Both Moses and Shechtman were driven by their curiosity, their hunger to discover what others could not see, and their need to understand the “Why?”
Moses’ “burning desire” to understand why the bush did not burn led him to his first divine encounter with God, who commanded that he go down to Egypt to redeem the Hebrew people from slavery. Moses was immediately engaged in conversation with God and challenged him with the question, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) to which God reassuringly responded, “For I shall be with you…”
Moses offers us another insight into the qualities of an inspired leader – the necessity of respectful engagement in conversation, even when it is difficult and challenging.
How we engage others, pose questions, challenge those ideas and people with whom we disagree, is essential to successful leadership. Simply put, the way we converse with one another will in many ways reflect upon and ultimately predict our future successes and failures, emanating from the most intimate of conversations to those on a national and global level.
Our Founding Fathers, many of them students of the Bible, envisioned a national debate that permitted open and respectful dialogue. In fact, in the earliest discussions of our constitutional democracy, it was understood that leadership and effective governance are best accomplished when compromise permeates the process so that everyone can leave the conversation feeling whole and heard, able to return to the table in the same spirit the next day.
Moses, Shechtman and the Founding Fathers, taken together, offer us a superb paradigm for our day and for navigating our divisions. We must be willing to be open to the unknown, drill down into ideas and relationships not previously fathomed, and aim for conversations and compromise so that we can grow together rather than tear each other apart.