A Blessing for Our Leaders in Times of a Pandemic
Posted on Sunday, May 17, 2020 by Tilly Shames
In April 2016, I was tasked with writing a D’var Torah for my Wexner community on Parshat Tazriah. This is the dreaded parshah filled with rashes and skin ailments (Leviticus 13), where the Priests hold the responsibility of examining members of their community to determine if they need to be removed and isolated. In 2016, the context for my reading of the parshah was the end of a tough academic year (Greek life scandals, divestment resolution and a rise in hateful messaging on campus associated with the Trump campaign). I found myself then reading the text through the eyes of a tired Hillel director that was feeling my long year, holding empathy for the leaders and the tough decisions they (the priests) and we (today’s Jewish leaders) have to make and communicate.
Little did I know how much more challenging the world could become and how much more I would be holding as a leader in 2020.
This year, I was waiting for this Torah portion to come around and greet me so that I could read it again for its wisdom. And this year, just like 2016, I am drawn to the priests with a level of empathy, compassion and admiration for the tough decision-making they have.
At first, I was struck by the on-the-nose application regarding making the decision to enforce isolation, but this time for the entire community. By now, as leaders of Jewish communal organizations, we have all had to decide to cease regular activities, impose strict forms of separation from community and make difficult decisions about how much physical distancing is enough and for how long. Today, as leaders we are all face-to-face (virtually) with a community experiencing isolation from each other. And as leaders, we are personally feeling the impact of isolation and separation and loss ourselves. How fascinating to have us all in the same position. And what an opportunity to grow in our sense of empathy for those who are deemed impure and forced into isolation.
I've thought often about that moment of leadership in this parshah. I usually picture this leader facing a decision that is painful to tell someone, but that they are doing so for the greater good of their community or perhaps for that individual. I’ve always felt that leader would feel agonized to have to make the decision and speak those words out loud. But I imagine the leader equipped with the values and empathy and tools to do so in a compassionate way. At least, when I picture myself in that moment as a leader, that is what I hope for.
This period of painful decision-making today and preparing ourselves for the uncertainty of tomorrow is filled with anguished leaders, struggling to greet their communities with the right combination of values and empathy that this moment calls for. With every cancellation and every extension of restrictions, we are feeling the impact of keeping our community, and ourselves, in isolation, while holding the responsibility to uphold the safety and well-being of every individual.
So, today my admiration is for the priests and my blessing is for our leaders facing painful decisions:
May we hold the highest levels of compassion and empathy and sensitivity when facing members of our community and holding their pain.
May we be driven by our values and ethics when making difficult decisions for the greater good of our community.
May we be easy on ourselves while surrounded by all of this uncertainty.
May we be grateful for the positions we are in and feel blessed and humbled by the responsibility that comes with it.
May we be patient and forgiving to our fellow leaders who may make different choices.
May we have open ears, eyes, and hearts to fully take in and understand the impact of our decisions.
May we be self-aware of our own privileges and consider how to give more to others, not less.
May we continue to be bold and innovative and not shrink away from our opportunities and responsibilities in this challenging time.
May we find ways to lean on others and share the weight when things get difficult.
May we learn much from this time and allow ourselves to grow and change.
May we find the good and appreciate the blessings in the darkness.
May we all come together again soon in community and be grateful for the blessing of being in one another’s company again.
Pilot WFF and WGF Alum Tilly Shames (Class 28) is is the Executive Director of University of Michigan Hillel. She can be reached here.
Photo by Andre Furtado on Unsplash