The Humble Leadership of the Nesi'im

This week, in Parashat Vayakhel, the Israelites continue building the mishkan (the portable sanctuary they use in the wilderness). Famously, Moses asks the people to donate supplies and materials -- gold, silver, fabrics, oil, spices, wood, precious stones and more -- and they show up with such generous contributions that he then has to announce that they can stop giving!

This week, in Parashat Vayakhel, the Israelites continue building the mishkan (the portable sanctuary they use in the wilderness). Famously, Moses asks the people to donate supplies and materials -- gold, silver, fabrics, oil, spices, wood, precious stones and more -- and they show up with such generous contributions that he then has to announce that they can stop giving!

Meanwhile, tucked at the tail end of this section is a pair of short verses that focus specifically on the contributions of the nesi'im, the leaders of each tribe: "And the nesi'im brought precious stones for the ephod (apron) and for the choshen (breastpiece), and the spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense" (Exodus 35:27-28).

The nesi'im, the tribal leaders, bring their gifts last of all... after "the whole community" and "everyone who was skilled in ability," after "men and women, all whose hearts moved them" and "all the skilled women." This is noted by the commentators. One midrash takes a jab at the leaders who contribute last, accusing them of having dragged their feet because they were upset that they hadn't been tapped to donate first; it notes that in this verse, the Hebrew word "nesi'im" appears in its shortest possible form (נְשִׂאִם), without any yods, as it is more commonly written (נְשִׂיאִים), seemingly to diminish the leaders who procrastinated in bringing their gifts because their egos got in the way. (Click here to read this midrash, from Bemidbar Rabbah 12:16, in full next to the biblical verse.)

Perhaps I've been shaped by so many years of working in a cooperative community, but my take on the gift of the nesi'im coming last is decidedly different. To me, it seems a great sign of the strength of their leadership that -- when the Israelites are asked to contribute -- the nesi'im initially hang back. It's almost as though they're thinking: "Let's see what the rest of the Israelites are able to do first, and we'll be sure to fill in the gaps at the end." In my reading of the text, the nesi'im understand that the goal of this particular donor campaign is 100% participation from the community. They take responsibility for the ultimate success of the project, and yet they are cautious not to overstep or overshadow others.

In my mind, the nesi'im are illustrating a beautiful form of leadership here, one that is inherently humble. Their style of letting others go first indicates great self-awareness... for such leaders must constantly pay attention to the dynamic contexts in which they operate and make strategic choices about when to step forward and when to step back, practicing tzimtzum (contracting, as God does in the Kabbalistic creation story, to free up space for others).

This is precisely the kind of leadership we've aimed to cultivate at Kavana over many years. Our goal has always been to empower every member of the Kavana community to forge their own individual Jewish path and to bring their unique gifts to share with others as we collectively build a vibrant spiritual community. But getting there requires building a culture of humble leadership.

I was thinking about this very notion last Saturday after our monthly Shabbat minyan. As we walked home, my daughter Mia asked me whether I ever worried that we wouldn't have a minyan (the minimum of 10 Jewish adults needed to constitute a prayer quorum). In my head, I quickly added up the number of people who had contributed to the leadership of that morning's service by bringing their unique gifts to share with the community: "donations" ranging from items for kiddush lunch to a thoughtful dvar torah, to davening or chanting skills... and I explained to her that just our "active donors" to the morning experience already added up to well over a minyan! This is an explicit goal for our cooperative community: that Kavana strives to create a broad array of opportunities for volunteerism, leadership, and active engagement, and also to spread the wealth of such roles broadly rather than rest on the shoulders of just a few leaders.

This principle also informs how the Kavana board functions; various board members regularly practice stepping forward and stepping back to make space for one another and ensure that all voices are heard in our collective work. It informs our staff culture as well, where Liz and Jasper, Maxine and Traci and I all regularly step forward into leadership and step back to make space for one another and for the many partners with whom we collaborate as we create programming and weave community.

Given all this, it's probably not surprising that one of the things that drew our Rabbinic Search Committee towards Rabbi Jay LeVine was a sense that he intuitively possesses this kind of humble and strong leadership. I couldn't be more thrilled that he will join Kavana's staff team next week (beginning next Tuesday, March 1st), to share his gifts with the Kavana community, and to work closely with all of you as you bring your gifts forward. Here, again, is a brief bio:

Rabbi Jay Asher LeVine is a life-long learner and seeker of wisdom and beauty. He is married to Rabbi Laura Rumpf and together they have a 14-month-old son, Ami (pronounced AH-mee). Rabbi Jay grew up the son of two music teachers in Willcox, Arizona, attended college at the University of Arizona where he earned dual degrees in Finance and Judaic Studies, and then entered rabbinical seminary at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. For the past six years, he has served as one of the rabbis at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. He has been trained in community organizing and mussar facilitation, and is currently a member of the Jewish Studio Project's Creative Facilitators Training, a Jewish art process promoting healing and belonging.

If you are interested in joining Rabbi Jay's "welcome wagon" over the coming months, please drop us a line; this could be a great opportunity for us to step forward into leadership by hosting a neighborhood welcome party, preparing a meal for his family, or sharing local recommendations or tickets, memberships, gift certificates, etc. to favorite Seattle spots!

Finally, this week, I encourage you to think about where you fit into the leadership schema that Parashat Vayakhel shows us with regard to the nesi'im. When do you tend to volunteer quickly, and when do you hang back to make space for others? If we all aim to be intentional about how we contribute to the greater whole, I have no doubt that together we will be capable of building a community of immense beauty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum