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Volodymyr Zelenski and Leadership Lessons from our Tradition

03/23/2022 08:34:20 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

Shabbat Shalom! This week, when President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke before Congress, as he sat there in his army fatigue t-shirt, speaking in simple words with no histrionics, I was struck by his courage and his ability to truly lead his people. He was a master communicator and was able to send a message with such eloquence and sincerity. He spoke first in his native tongue and then showed a video that demonstrated the beauty of Ukraine before this war and then the terror and horror of the war now. And then he turned to English and in simple English, he was able to communicate directly and get his message across and inspire all who were watching and listening. 

In thinking about Zelensky, and in contrast to Putin, I thought of a lesson that I heard from David Axelrod many years ago, a lesson about power. He said there are those who seek power for what they can be--how powerful they can be, how much control they can have. And then there are those who seek power for what they can do--what they can accomplish. And I was struck by that contrast between Putin and Zelensky.  He is one who wants power so that he can do and accomplish.

As I thought about Zelensky, I also thought of other models of those who were fortunate enough to be in positions of power. The first in our tradition is Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh. Joseph as a young person was a pretty obnoxious kid. He lorded it over his brothers and his father. He told them of his dreams of them all bowing down to him. The brothers sold him into slavery, and then Joseph found himself in prison. He was released from prison because Pharaoh had a dream, and Pharaoh sent for Joseph to explain the dream to him. Joseph was no longer the dreamer of dreams but the interpreter. Pharaoh says to him, “I hear it said that you only need to hear a dream and you can tell what it means,” and Joseph says, “Not I. It is God who understands.” This is our first insight into a changed Joseph who has a humility about him and recognizes that God is in that story.

Later, when his brothers come to him and he reveals himself to them, the brothers know that they sold him into slavery, and they fear that Joseph is going to punish them because he must certainly be angry. But Joseph says, “God has sent me here for a purpose. Do not berate yourselves, it was not you but rather God. You intended me harm, but God intended it for good.”

So Joseph saw himself in a much larger story, and his leadership came from that understanding. Generations later, we come to the story of Moses. Moses leaves Egypt, goes into Sinai, serves his father-in-law as a shepherd, and there in the desert he sees the Burning Bush. God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and says, “You must go down to Pharaoh to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go. You are now going to be my spokesperson.” Moses’ reaction is “Mi Anochi? Who am I? Who am I to be able to do that? Indeed I am a person of impaired speech.”

Moses responds with humility even reluctance, not doing what he needed to do for the sake of power but for a sacred mission.

This week we read the story of Purim. We read from the Megillah that, in some ways is a silly, frivolous story of palace intrigue. It's almost a Punch and Judy show of Haman as the evil vizier, like Jafar in Aladdin.

But then Mordecai gives a charge to Esther and says, “It is for this purpose alone to save your people that you are the queen of Persia.” Mordecai explained to Esther that she had a mission and that there was a purpose for where she was. When at the very end, Mordecai is elevated to the position second only to King Ahasuerus. the final lines of the Megillah says, “Mordecai the Jew ranked next to the king and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren. He sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all of his kindred.” He had power, but his power was being used for a noble purpose, again for what he could do, not for what he could be.

Many of you joined us this past Sunday when David Axelrod was here and he told the story that when the Affordable Care Act was passed, Obamacare, and he was with the president. He went into his office and thought about his own experience of having a daughter, Lauren, who had epilepsy and had to have so many different medical procedures in her young life while he was a journalist for the Tribune and it almost bankrupted him.

And then when he thought about that he broke down in tears and President Obama came in and said to him, “This is why we do what we do.”

Again, it's power for purpose, for achieving something. Those who achieve leadership and do so in order to serve understand the awesome responsibility placed on them. They recognize that they have been called to leadership for a sacred and divine purpose. I think we saw that in Zelensky in his speech to Congress.  He is an inspiration, as his people are an inspiration right now.

Let us pray that God protects him and protects the people of Ukraine.

Shabbat Shalom


Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784