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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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What would Zach do?

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My son, Josh, led a leadership seminar with the title “What would Zach do?” Zach is his son. I’m borrowing this title and idea from Josh.

As many of you know, my husband had a stroke. At the time, Zach was preparing for his bar mitzvah. It was to take place in the same synagogue as my husband’s own bar mitzvah celebration 58 years ago. It soon became obvious to all that Howard and I would not be able to go to New York for that occasion. So Zach and his parents had a decision to make. The parents left it up to Zach. Children surprise us. Zach’s reasoning throughout this whole event amazed all of us who know him so well and perhaps, were ready to sell him short. Many adults think: “Kids! What do they know? Kids! What are they capable of?”

Zach thought: “I have only one Saba [grandfather in Hebrew]. He can’t travel here, so we should go there for the bar mitzvah.” This was a big sacrifice, but somehow he didn’t see it that way.

Can we as a community sometimes understand our own decisions and actions in so simple a manner? If they won’t come here, we should go there. It reminds me of Abraham’s decision to move his entire camp so that his nephew’s crew could choose their land and the fighting between sheep herders would stop. There was no arguing about who was correct – no negotiating, no side battles.

But that wasn’t the end of our story, or even the most poignant leadership moment. On the big day itself, Zach assumed a role no one could have envisioned.

The time came in the Shabbat service for Zach to start reading the Torah. But Saba was not there. We were late. Oy! So Zach told his father: “I came here to share my bar mitzvah with my one grandfather. It makes no sense for me to start before he gets here. Let’s wait.”

 What to do? Could an entire congregation wait?

Howard was their rabbi emeritus, but there is a principle of Jewish law that we don’t place a burden on the entire community (tircha d’tsibburah). How can the service be stopped and everyone be made to wait? So Zach got up to give a speech. He would teach the congregation some of his grandfather’s Torah – the teachings that Howard had taught Zach over the years. An impromptu speech followed. Slowly but surely, with help from others, Zach had his way. Everyone waited until his grandfather arrived and he could start properly.

Aside from bragging, what’s my point?

Zach led the congregation that day with straightforward logic. His ritual passage into Jewish manhood ended up being a real rite of transformation. He demonstrated for us an adult understanding of the purpose of the ritual and celebration. His community centred on family, and for him his grandfather was a central pin. To pull that pin out was to remove a core. We could not. Moreover, he wasn’t shy in front of other rabbis and congregants to state his need and his view. He was Zach, a person with a perspective, and he counted. So he could tell us to wait. And he was right.

Josh used this quote from the late management professor Peter Drucker to further the discourse: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

In this context, doing things right would have meant continuing services in a timely pattern. That is usually the correct approach, for surely we cannot establish a pattern whereby the congregation waits for latecomers. But leaders recognize those times when doing the right thing requires leaving the secure path of the way things are always done and following a new need.

 In the future, I will ask myself, “What would Zach do” when faced with students whose needs or course work differ from university protocol.

Finally, I must add that while all this was buzzing in my head, I realized that there were narratives in the biblical text that have bothered me because I thought they represented examples of the ends justifying the means. But after this experience, I began to re-examine them in light of Zach, and I now think of many as stories in which the actors did the right thing, instead of doing things correctly.

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