How Good Is Our Talent
When I was 12, my rabbi assigned me the Torah Portion Balak, from the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), as the portion I would read from and then speak about during the morning I became a Bar Mitzvah. I had not yet studied Balak, the King of the Amalekites, and his quest to destroy the Israelites, who had just escaped from slavery in Egypt. Balak wanted to halt the Israelites’ journey and attack the wandering tribes. He figured the best way to do this was to hire a wizard to curse the Israelites as they were dwelling in their makeshift tents.
This wizard, Balaam, was happy to take the job. After meeting with Balak and assigned to curse the Israelites in their tents, he took his donkey and headed towards the Israelite camp. It is at this point that this donkey turned out to be a pain in Balaam’s ass. He veered off track, distracting Balaam from completing his mission.
Balaam beat the donkey until the donkey began to talk. I paraphrase from the Torah and take a little creative license here. “Why do you beat me?” the donkey asked. In Balaam’s frustration, he continued to beat the donkey until the presence of God appeared. Balaam was humbled. God’s presence had shifted Balaam’s perspective. He was no longer a man on a mission to curse a people. Instead, when he arrived at the Israelite Camp, out came words of Blessing, from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 24 Verse 5:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“Mah Tovu O’Halecha Ya’akov, Miskhenotecha Yisrael,”
How Goodly Are Your Tents O’Jacob, your Houses of Israel,”
Balaam, sent by Balak because of his power through words to curse the Israelites and thus be beneficial for his Amalekite people, actually performs the opposite directive. Balaam’s powerful words bless the Israelites. I often like to think that this blessing was one of the reasons the Israelites made it to the promised land, and that this blessing has helped the Jewish community survive these thousands of years, through triumph and persecution, condemnation and liberation, to a position in the early 21st Century in which, despite our numerous challenges, we thrive both in the state of Israel today and in our many diaspora communities around the globe.
As a budding adolescent in 1994, I read this portion and took the lesson to be about the magic, or power, of words. I recall quoting the parable, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and challenging it, re-stating that “words may actually hurt the most,” during my speech, or d’var Torah. I still believe in the power of this lesson today, that the words we say, or we choose not to say, that can either bless or curse.
We, stewards of the Jewish organizational experience are, in many ways, exactly like Balaam, and in a key way the opposite. We are like Balaam in that we have tremendous power when leading our organizations. Our words and deeds matter and have consequences. They can have tremendous benefit and can cause tremendous harm.
Yet what may not be obvious is when our words and deeds unintentionally, without our kavanah, curse our workforce, inhibiting our employees from reaching their full potential. As stewards of our organizations this is, of course, the last thing we would want. We want to maximize our investment in our buildings, programs, missions, projects, and especially our people, who bring all of our assets to life and to good use. Yet, if our exploration throughout this book has taught us anything, it is that this isn’t always the case.
In fact, this is where we are the direct opposite of Balaam. He was intent on cursing the Israelite people, yet thanks to a talking donkey followed by the presence and persuasion of God, Balaam blesses them with the beautiful words of Mah Tovu we continue to chant to this day. Balaam was the beneficiary of a pain in the ass that allowed his point of view to shift, and he began to understand the consequences of his actions, of what was truly important and what truly mattered. For Balaam, that was subservience to God rather than to fulfilling a job given to him by Balak, and a promotion of peace, tranquility, and prosperity rather than war and conflict.
I would bet that anyone reading this is on the side of wanting to bless our workforce, wanting to be a part of the solution, aspiring to deliver the words and deeds to bless each of our employees. We should all seek to provide our talent with the job environment and motivational tools not only to survive in this field despite our systemic deficiencies and challenges, but to thrive, to have a huge smile on their faces and feeling of love in their hearts every day while preforming this work. I applaud you for wanting to gain a deeper sense of how to better bless our workforce.
Going forward, we must commit to ensuring that our keva, our actions, align with our kavanah, our intentions. Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick, one of my esteemed colleagues while I was at JTS, would often teach our graduate students about prayer, and how to teach prayer. He would talk a lot about aligning our keva with our kavanah. We fail by not aligning the two when we are participating in our teaching prayer. We teach how to read, or decode, the Hebrew; we teach when to bend and when to bow during the Amidah (the standing silent devotion found in the thrice daily religious service), yet we don’t always teach the why of our prayers, the intention behind the prayers we recite. What do these words mean? What do we hope comes from wearing tefillin (phylacteries), a tallis (prayer shawl), and a kippah (head covering)? I went to religious school throughout my childhood and adolescence and was a star student, yet I fail to recall having those conversations. This, thankfully, is changing in religious school environments today.
Our talented human resources, like all of humanity, need to be taken care of in order to thrive. When, for example, we compensate according to a scarcity model and try to set standards of compensation and staff investment according to the marketplace, what is that accomplishing? When we set up job structures without clear job descriptions that create a lack of clarity between the manager and the employee, our keva does not align with the kavanah, of wanting our employees to feel blessed? When we hire without putting on gender or other diverse lenses and thus perpetuate the trends that frustrate and turn away the talent of emerging generations, why? Will this actually set us up for long term success?
I hope that, with these blessings now in our toolbox, we can bring kavanah into our words and deeds, amplifying the kevas that are already aligning with our intentions. The blessings we act upon will also allow us to adjust the keva that is not aligning with our intentions. No matter how much of the pain it may be in the short term, aligning our deeds with our intentions in the long-term, will raise up our talent, our organizations, and community for long-term success.
I humbly proposed the following in my ELI Talk, and it bears repeating here: We as Jews believe in the magic, the wizardry of blessings; we bless the food before we eat, our children before they go to bed and before Shabbat, when there is a rainbow in the sky and when the rain falls. We bless because it allows us to be intentional with our actions, that our actions will follow our words, that we will eat the best food for our bodies, that we will be kind parents to our children, and that we will do well by this earth. How about we go into our organizations, into YOUR organization, tomorrow, the next day, and the next, and say this mah tovu:
“How goodly Is our Talent in our organizations, our workforce in this Jewish community,”
Let us put action to these words. If we meet this call to action, this industry, the Jewish professional sector, will be the greatest place to work because we already have inspiring missions with meaningful work that already provide so much soul-fulfillment, as our narratives prove.
By adding the virtuous cycle of employee investment introduced to us by Dr. Zenyep Ton, and the various blessings we now have in our toolbox, we can be the ideal, if not the envy, of all other industries, attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent who may already have an affinity for serving Jewish community and are inspired by our Jewish organizational missions and results.
I didn’t yet realize the power and long-lasting soul-fulfillment of this work when I was sitting in that meeting with the JCC professional while a young counselor at Jewish summer camp. I didn’t understand the impact a Jewish community professional could have on the lives of others, the ability to create and manage entire organizations such as Moishe House, OneTable, and Bronfman Youth Fellowships that have engaged and inspired tens of thousands into Jewish experiences filled with love, community, nurturing, celebrating each other’s strengths and differences, and valuing the importance of one’s learning and professional growth. I had no idea the impact of a Federation, Camp, or Day School director to set policy, innovate new educational practices, help alleviate poverty, and set the next generation on a course towards a more successful and fulfilling life. I had no idea at the sheer creativity and innovation spread throughout our field, those who share and bring to life big bold ideas to the masses, engage in the arts and technologies in our JCCs and youth groups, and help advocate for a better tomorrow. I had no concept of the entrepreneurial and leadership spirit that embodies our thousands of Jewish community professionals and the start-ups, legacy institutions and various projects within which they serve.
Now I do, and now we know more about some of the journeys that have led select folks to join in this collective venture, supporting this one all-important goal: securing a thriving Jewish community for today and tomorrow.. We know how special these Jewish community professionals are, their needs, challenges, frustrations, hopes and dreams. We now we have clear concrete strategies to properly motivate, demonstrate value, and bless them.
Now that we are armed with these strategies, we have an obligation to examine our practices, to identify where our actions do not currently align with our intentions and in which we are, however inadvertently, inhibiting our workforce from reaching its full potential. Let us amplify what we are doing well and have the courage to make changes where we need to.
Any positive change will do good: starting a robust and clear performance review process in our organizations or setting clear job descriptions and compensation levels, making our mission more explicit, fostering more partnerships, or adopting any one of these blessings. Start with our golden role: make time to deeply know each of your staff members. Have them really get to know you too, so we can best manage, support, and bless each other in our noble and critically important efforts.
We are the Wizards
We have every ability, and all the magic in our hearts, souls, and collective might, to make the Jewish sector the best place possible to work for each of our Jewish community professionals. We just need to make a promise to ourselves and to each other to align with our keva with our kavanah to bless our workforce. For the teenager at summer camp first hearing about this field, or the entry-level professional, or the mid-manager, or the executive – and to all of them collectively – I ask, what will you do first to bless your workforce?